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Three Ways of Knowing: Scientific

Three Ways of Knowing: Scientific, Phenomenological and Spiritual
by Don Salmon, PhD

The study of human consciousness seems to be in a state of great ferment and change in recent years.  A focal point in discussions among psychologists, neuroscientists and others interested in this field is what mathematician-philosopher David Chalmers refers to as the “hard problem of consciousness”. [i]   Chalmers suggests that whatever progress scientists have made in understanding the relationship between certain aspects of human consciousness, there has been little if any increase in understanding of the nature of consciousness itself.  In recent years, there have been a growing number of published articles by mainstream psychologists questioning the methods being used to investigate consciousness.  Some prominent psychologists  are suggesting that new kinds of experimental research are needed.  On the other hand, there are many who believe that consciousness does not at all represent a “hard problem”, and that the experimental methods which have proven so successful in other domains – physics, biology, the study of the brain – will ultimately prove equally successful for the study of consciousness and the psychological processes associated with it.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of knowing which characterize the field of psychology.  For the purposes of this article, I will call them “scientific”, “phenomenological” and “spiritual”.  There seems to be some confusion about both what is being studied and the method of study.  The laboratory methods employed by most experimental psychologists are generally (though not solely) used to study an extremely limited field of psychological phenomena, using an exacting, analytic and reductionistic approach.  Phenomenological psychologists usually (though not always) explore a much wider range of life experience, employing a method which yields a far richer and more complex understanding than that of the laboratory scientist.   The spiritual investigator (yogi, sage, mystic, etc) studies a still wider range of experience using a method which brings forth a still more profound level of understanding.

The confusion seems to lie in an unwillingness or incapacity of those favoring a particular method to understand its differences from and similarities to the other approaches, as well as the appropriate use of each.  In order to help sort out this confusion, an attempt will be made to distill out the essence of each method and then understand the relationship of all three.  In this article, these three methods will be defined as follows: (1) “Science”: a way of investigating psychological data which employs primarily analytic and reductionistic means of knowing. [ii] (2) “Phenomenology”: the direct, first-person exploration of rich and complex experiential data limited mostly (but not entirely) to individual and conventional experience; and (3) “Spirituality”: a direct, intuitive knowing of the absolute nature of the data known – a “knowledge which is not separate from that which it perceives”. [iii]   The spiritual approach presented here will be that of Indian psychology as interpreted by the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.

All three ways of knowing can and have been used to investigate the same kinds of psychological data; an attempt will be made to show that only the “spiritual” – in particular, the spiritual perspective of Indian psychology – has the potential to integrate all three ways of knowing [iv] .  The intention here is to provoke a different way of thinking about the habitual, reflexive interpretation of  these three approaches.  Hopefully, the effort might lead the reader toward a new way of seeing and understanding what, to many, seem to be intractable issues.

I. Science

Several years ago, the Journal of Consciousness Studies published a special issue on first person approaches to the study of consciousness, entitled “The View From Within”.   In a series of very interesting articles, leading scientists offered their suggestions for using various forms of introspection to gain direct access to inner experience.   The main articles were followed by a series of short rejoinders under the heading “Peer Commentary and Responses”.    Psychologist Bernard J. Baars gave a particularly provocative response under the title, “There is Already A Field of Systematic Phenomenology, and it’s Called ‘Psychology”. [v]

While glancing through the contents of this issue, I came to the title of Baars’ article, and was intrigued.  It seemed likely that whatever he had to say, his response would be news to the phenomenological psychologists who for many decades have been tirelessly and quietly (quiet in regard to their lack of recognition in the larger field of scientific psychology) exploring a variety of alternative methodological approaches to the study of experience.  I turned to the article, and sure enough, the “systematic phenomenology” Baars claimed to be already in existence seemed to approach its subject manner in a way strikingly different from what I understood to be the general approach of phenomenological psychology.

The phenomenological psychologists have for many years taken issue with both the chosen subject matter of mainstream experimental psychology and the methodology used to explore it. [vi]     For example, the phenomenologists have long held that the mainstream experimental approach to the study of emotion subjects it to a process of analysis which  – while no doubt bringing forth accurate information of a certain kind – elicits very little insight which is relevant to the actual experience of people living their lives.  Baars himself gives a lovely description of one domain of psychological experience which he acknowledges has as yet produced little if any significant insights: “There is a deplorable dearth of evidence about emotional feelings – that sinking feeling of disappointment, that wave of love, the surge of anger, the pang of guilt, all the conscious signals of emotional ups and downs.” [vii]

Experimental psychologists such as Carroll Izard and Robert Zajonc, who have been studying such “emotional feelings” for several decades would likely be surprised to hear of Baars’ description of this “dearth of evidence”.  However, Baars may have, possibly without intending it, pointed to a general problem with the experimental approach to the study of human experience.   Researchers in the field of affective science (a term recently coined to refer to the study of emotion) have borrowed their methodology from cognitive science.  According to neuropsychologist Merlin Donald, this deconstructive methodology is characterized by “an exclusive focus on relatively peripheral or front-end phenomena, such as short-term memory, visual imagery, perceptual illusions and the allocation of attention, which must be crammed because of methodological necessity, into a time window of fifteen seconds or less”.[viii]

“Fifteen seconds or less” –  this is the time frame for the famous experiment of neurosurgeon Benjamin Libet demonstrating a delay between the time a sensory stimulus is registered in the brain and an individual’s conscious awareness of that event.  This experiment has been cited numerous times as corroboration for the absence of free will.  Donald, in a brilliant and incisive analysis of the inferences drawn from this and other kinds of experiments, points out that meaningful human experience does not take place within a limited time frame of milliseconds.  The ability to track time, along with many others measured by cognitive scientists (like the analysis of the process by which people memorize lists of nonsense syllables, one of the examples of human phenomenology cited by Baars), is in an entirely different category of human psychology from the rich field of “lived experience” which is generally the subject matter of phenomenological psychologists.

Consider another example Baars describes in support of his contention that scientific psychology, as a systematic study of human conscious experience, is essentially the same as phenomenological psychology.  He suggests that the study of hue, saturation and brightness, subjective factors that account for all aspects of the subjective perception of color, is equal to a phenomenology of color.  The deconstructive nature of this description of subjectivity should be obvious if you imagine a gifted painter studying a work of the impressionist Claude Monet.  Is it possible that the painter, asked to describe his impression of the Monet painting, would refer merely to varying degrees of hue, saturation and brightness, to the exclusion of all aesthetic considerations?  Yet it is exactly the rich, multi-faceted experience of emotional, intellectual and intuitive apprehension which almost completely escapes the laboratory scientist and which the phenomenologist wishes to study. [ix] 

In a Journal of Consciousness Studies article on phenomenology in cognitive science [x] , Shaun Gallagher refers to neurologist Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error” [xi] , which he describes as being “neurologically rich but phenomenologically impoverished”.   Subtitled, “Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain”, Damasio’s book jacket features blurbs describing it as containing “provocative concepts about intelligence, memory, creativity and even passion.”  However, the reader, after sifting through brilliant discussions about the workings of the brain, will discover that it contains relatively little insight or even information of a specifically psychological nature.    Gallagher notes that in a discussion of memory, Damasio devotes much space to neural activity associated with memory but very little if any to the experience of a human being who is remembering something.   He contrasts this objective, neurological approach to a phenomenologically rich description by Eduard Marbach on the relationship between perception and memory.  Gallagher then suggests that there is the possibility of a rich interplay between these two approaches to understanding the mind, and in fact, Damasio’s neurological description appears to complement Marbach’s phenomenological description.

How might the rich phenomenological approach to exploring human experience be integrated with the clarity and objectivity of the approach of the experimental scientist?

II. Phenomenology

Before it is possible to consider what might be necessary to integrate these two approaches, there are several issues that need to be clarified.  What exactly is it that the phenomenological psychologist wishes to study?  And, without the precision of laboratory-based measurements, on what basis can she claim that her findings qualify as “science”?

According to Amadeo Giorgi, one of the leaders in the field of phenomenological research, laboratory measurements of the kind Baars refers to “have overlooked or severely distorted… many important aspects of these phenomena as lived and experienced [emphasis in the original].” [xii] He notes that natural science methodologies were developed to investigate those aspects of natural phenomena most susceptible to objective, and more important, mathematical precision.   Since the early years of scientific psychology, an effort has been made to copy as closely as possible the methods of natural science, an attempt some refer to as “physics envy”. [xiii]   No doubt, this has resulted in providing a certain amount of precision to experimental data (though far less than is often assumed).  However, this precision has been gained at the expense of the “impoverishment” of descriptions of human experience “as lived”.

Phenomenological psychologists seek out precisely those “messy”, subjective aspects of human experience which are usually factored out when experimental psychologists attempt to “operationalize” (convert experience into measurable data points) research questions.  For example, William F. Fischer, in a description of his investigation of self-deception, lists the following questions as being of most interest to him:  “What are the essential meanings of self-deception?  What are the different types of self-deception?  In terms of what strategies is self-deception enacted?  What is the significance of self-deception in human life?” [xiv] 

Meaning and significance, often the first items to be dropped in the laboratory, are here seen to be core concerns of the phenomenological psychologist.  This seems to be a long way from the uni-dimensional descriptions of working memory and the perception of hue, saturation and brightness which Baars’ cited to support his claim that experimental psychology already explores human phenomenology.   Consider the workings of self-deception within an ordinary conversation.  The levels of subtlety and complexity involved in the simple exchange of emotion-laden speech are staggering, and seem to be beyond the reach of most cognitive or affective science.  Add to this the layers of conflicting memories, self-images, beliefs, attitudes, etc which may underlie the act of self-deception, and psychology’s need for a phenomenally rich set of descriptions becomes apparent.

Psychological researchers who are interested in making use of such rich forms of description are painfully aware of the dilemma of wanting to do so while maintaining something at least resembling the rigor of the natural sciences.  To this end, groups of phenomenological psychologists have devised sophisticated forms of data collection, inquiry and intersubjective verification.  Some – for example, James Barrell – have worked in tandem with statisticians toward the goal of integrating verbally rich descriptions of experience with mathematically precise measurements of observable behavior [xv] .   Shaun  Gallagher describes an approach to the integration of phenomenological psychology and neuroscience.   He suggests that the phenomenological work of Eduard Marbach could provide an excellent complement to the neurological work of Antonio Damasio.  Marbach understands memory as involving some kind of re-enactment of the original act of perception.  Gallagher cites Damasio’s description of the neural activity underlying memory as fitting neatly with Marbach’s analysis, and to support this quotes Damasio as saying that the neural activity accompanying memory occurs in ‘the same… sensory cortices where the firing patterns corresponding to [the original] perceptual representations once occurred.’ [xvi] &&endnote: make same point about physical, vital, thought mind and parts of brain

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has developed rigorous experimental methods which incorporate neurological data, objective measures of verbal reports of the type commonly used by cognitive scientists, and complex verbal descriptions which retain the fullness and richness of lived experience.  His studies of the “flow” experience extend from the common experience of satisfaction in the completion of a difficult task to rare moments of mystic joy.[xvii]   Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan has created an interview format which combines objective measurements subjected to careful statistical analysis with phenomenologically rich verbal descriptions of transitional moments in psychological development. [xviii]

Clearly then, there is a significant difference between Baars’ phenomenology and that of Fisher, Giorgi, Kegan, Gallagher and Csikszentmihalyi.  But there seems to be no essential opposition between the two.  Experimental psychologists explore the basic elements of human experience to some extent lacking even amongst the most rigorous phenomenologists.  And phenomenological psychologists can provide a fullness of description which for the most part is not present within the findings of experimental psychologists.

However, the marriage between these two approaches to the study of human experience is far from consummated.  Proponents of each remain critical of the other; the experimentalist finds the phenomenologist’s descriptions to be lacking in clarity, rigor and precision; the phenomenologist doubts the relevance of the experimentalist’s precise scientific procedures to the exploration of human experience as it is actually lived.

There is a further problem.  Neither the approach of the phenomenologist nor that of the experimentalist – has come to terms with the fact that the whole of psychology represents the study of the mind within a larger scientific paradigm which is predominantly materialistic.  Most psychologists shy away from the full implications of the materialistic outlook as it relates to most, if not all, of what is of greatest concern to human beings.  However, the biologist Francis Crick, in his book, “The Astonishing Hypothesis”, shows no such hesitation: “The astonishing hypothesis is that ‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.  As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.'” [xix] 

Leaving aside the note of triumph in Crick’s assertion of the materialistic basis of human consciousness, he describes quite vividly the dilemma facing psychologists who wish to fully account for the total experience of being human.  If in truth, we are “nothing but a pack of neurons”, perhaps there is not really so much difference between Baars’ phenomenology of saturation, brightness and hue and that of Kegan, Csikszentmihalyi, Gallagher and other phenomenological psychologists.  It looks like David Chalmers’ “Hard Problem” – how the experience of consciousness can occur in what science takes to be a primarily physical universe – remains a problem both for the experimental and the phenomenological psychologist.

The impasse to which many scientists have come regarding the nature of the mind seems to be quite serious.  There are many in the scientific community who share the viewpoint of epiphenomenalism – the idea that human consciousness is almost an afterthought of evolution, with absolutely no causal power in relation to our behavior or to matter in general.   Philosopher Mary Midgley refers to this notion as the “steam-whistle” theory of consciousness after Thomas Huxley’s description of consciousness as “completely without any power of modifying [the working of the body][ as the steam-whistle which accompanies the working of a locomotive engine is without influence on its machinery’. [xx]    Because of this viewpoint, scientists and philosophers expend an enormous amount of energy arguing about such things as the existence of “zombies” who resemble human beings in every way with the exception that they are completely unconscious.  Evolutionary biologists are at a loss to understand the function of consciousness in evolution, and many have come to the conclusion that it serves no purpose at all.  It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody that perhaps the purpose of evolution is the development of consciousness.

It seems largely because of these underlying materialistic assumptions that there is so much confusion amongst both experimentalists and phenomenologists with regard to the workings of the mind.  For example, it is perhaps because Baars takes the materialistic basis of consciousness so completely for granted that he apparently sees little or no difference between the studies of the phenomenological psychologists and the various experiments in color perception and working memory he cites as examples of human phenomenology.  The phenomenologists, in spite of their avowed aim of exploring the full richness of human experience, accept the paradoxical co-existence of meaning and purpose in an essentially meaningless, purposeless material world ultimately devoid of consciousness.

There is another approach altogether to understanding the nature of consciousness – that of Indian psychology [1] .  It does not understand consciousness to be merely an epiphenomenona, the general view of the experimental psychologist.  Nor does it take consciousness to be simply a rich, complex and uniquely human phenomenon which may ultimately be nothing more than a result of the workings of the brain, the view of many phenomenological psychologists.  Rather, Indian psychology understands consciousness to be “the fundamental thing in existence… the movement of consciousness [being what] creates the universe and all that is in it”. [xxi]    However, the outlook of Indian psychology has been widely misunderstood, and as a result its insights in regard to consciousness have not been given much attention.

As described earlier, experimental psychologist Bernard Baars appears to understand phenomenological psychology in terms of the framework with which he is most comfortable and most familiar.  Similarly, both experimental and phenomenological psychologists tend to view Indian psychology through the lens with which they are familiar and at ease.  But all three psychological approaches have different methods of investigation.  It may be that each method is adequate for the investigation of a particular kind of phenomenon, with perhaps some overlap between them.  On the other hand, it may be that only one method of investigation is broad and deep enough to integrate all three.

What then, is the method of Indian psychology, and what is its relationship to experimental and phenomenological psychology?  What, if there is one, is the appropriate sphere of investigation for each, and how might it be possible to achieve a true integration of all three?

III. Spiritual/Indian Psychology

In order to make clear what Indian psychology is, it will be helpful to first consider what it is not.  Over the past several decades, there have been a number of studies of Indian meditative practices employing both  strict experimental techniques and phenomenological methodology.   Several examples will be given which explore visual imagery.  First, a brief description of an experimental procedure:

  • “Dillbeck investigated the effects of the regular practice of transcendental meditation (TM) on habitual patterns of visual perception and verbal problem solving. He hypothesized that two weeks of TM practice would tend to free the subjects from inhibitory effects of those patterns, while allowing an improvement in their efficient use when appropriate… The general hypothesis was supported for tasks involving a tachistoscopic [2] identification of card-and-letter sequence stimuli, but not for a verbal problem-solving task involving anagram solutions.” [xxii]

Next, two descriptions of phenomenological studies:

  • “Deikman reported that during meditation on a blue vase, his subjects’ perception of color became more intense or luminous, and that for some of them the vase changed shape, appeared to dissolve, or lost its boundaries.[xxiii]
  • “Walsh reported that meditators sometimes experience synaesthesia, or cross-modality perception, where a sight is smelled or a sound is felt.” [xxiv]

The results of the above three experiments seem to be characterized by the approaches used to study the  meditative experience.  The first experiment reports little of the personal nature of the perceptual experience of the meditators, focusing instead on purely quantitative measurements regarding the manipulation of neutral stimuli.  The second and third experiments, as is typical of other phenomenological studies, captures a greater degree of the subjective richness of meditative experience.  However, none of them (nor most of the others reported in Michael Murphy’s review of 65 years of scientific research on meditation) relate the psychological findings to those aspects of experience which are the prime concern of meditative inquiry.

What then is the purpose of meditation?  It is often thought of as a means of bringing about a reduction in psychological stress.  Some of the most hardnosed materialists have conceded that meditation may achieve some minimal level of success in achieving a state of relaxation, though often they add that doing something innocuous like taking a nap or reading an enjoyable magazine article would do just as well.  Perhaps they are right; or perhaps the unintended consequence of fitting the practice of meditation into the rather tight box of scientific inquiry has led to a profound misunderstanding of the nature of meditative experience.

Here, by contrast, is a description by Sri Aurobindo of the results of meditation.  Admittedly, this description is applicable only to someone quite advanced in meditative practice, but the contrast with the experiments described above may help to make clear the profound difference between the methodologies of Indian, phenomenological and experimental psychology:

“As soon as the sight…becomes altered under the influence [of the higher spiritual consciousness], the eye gets a new and transfigured vision of things and of the world around us.  It is as if the eye of the poet and artist had replaced the vague or trivial unseeing normal vision, but singularly spiritualised and glorified,—as if indeed it were the sight of the supreme divine Poet and Artist in which we were participating and there were given to us the full seeing of his truth and intention in his design of the universe and of each thing in the universe. There is an unlimited intensity which makes all that is seen a revelation of the glory of quality and idea and form and colour. The physical eye seems then to carry in itself a spirit and a consciousness which sees not only the physical aspect of the object but the soul of quality in it, the vibration of energy, the light and force and spiritual substance of which it is made…

There is at the same time a subtle change which makes the sight see in a sort of fourth dimension and subtly extends around it…  The material object becomes to this sight something different from what we now see, not a separate object on the background or in the environment of the rest of Nature, but an indivisible part and even in a subtle way an expression of the unity of all that we see. And this unity that we see becomes not only to the subtler consciousness but to the mere sense, to the illumined physical sight itself, that of the identity of the Eternal, the unity of the [Divine]. For to the [spiritualized] seeing the material world and space and material objects cease to be material in the sense in which we now on the strength of the sole evidence of our limited physical organs and of the physical consciousness that looks through them receive as our gross perception and understand as our conception of matter. It and they appear and are seen as spirit itself in a form of itself and a conscious extension. The whole is a unity… held in and by the consciousness in a spiritual space and all substance there is conscious substance.” [xxv]

The difference between scientific, phenomenological and spiritual methodologies may perhaps best be characterized in terms of the means of knowing employed by each.  Experimental psychologists employ primarily what educational psychologist Howard Gardner terms “the logical-mathematical” intelligence. [xxvi]   Physicist Arthur Zajonc has pointed out that – despite some aversion to such terms – most scientists in the hypothesis-development phase of  research employ imaginative and intuitive intelligence as well. [xxvii]   However,  what is presented in the final report is characterized primarily by what remains after these imaginative and intuitive elements are weeded out.  Phenomenological psychologists – still employing Gardner’s terms – while making partial use of the logical-mathematical way of knowing, make use of several other styles of knowledge-gathering in addition.  These include intrapersonal (knowledge of ourselves), interpersonal (psychological understanding of others) and existential intelligence, which Gardner describes as “the proclivity to pose (and ponder) questions about life, death and ultimate realities”. [xxviii]   While experimental psychologists may also make use of these other forms of intelligence, whatever does not conform to the logical-mathematical style of thinking is eliminated before they produce the report of their research.

The Indian psychologist uses all these intelligences, but adds a new dimension (as may be evident in the above passage) which is not only untapped but wholly unknown within the contemporary psychological  community.  The distinctions between the essential method of Indian psychology and those of scientific and phenomenological psychology may be made clear by using distinctions that Sri Aurobindo makes regarding four different kinds of knowledge.  The typical form of knowledge, one which is characteristic of both the experimental and the phenomenological psychologist, is what he calls “a completely separative knowledge which relies on a machinery of indirect contact.”   Describing in more detail the process of this separative knowledge, Sri Aurobindo comments:

Our world-knowledge is… a difficult structure made up of the imperfect documentation of the sense-image, an intuitional interpretation of it by perceptive mind, life-mind and sense-mind, and a supplementary filling up, correction, addition of supplementary knowledge, co-ordination, by the reason. Even so our knowledge of the world we live in is narrow and imperfect, our interpretations of its significances doubtful: imagination, speculation, reflection, impartial weighing and reasoning, inference, measurement, testing, a further correction and amplification of sense evidence by Science,—all this apparatus had to be called in to complete the incompleteness. After all that the result still remains a half-certain, half-dubious accumulation of acquired indirect knowledge, a mass of significant images and ideative representations, abstract thought-counters, hypotheses, theories, generalisations, but also with all that a mass of doubts and a never-ending debate and inquiry. [There is an] imperfection of our self-knowledge which, such as it is, meagre and pitifully insufficient, is of our surface only, of our apparent phenomenal self and nature and not of our true self and the true meaning of our existence. [xxix]

According to Sri Aurobindo, the reason our knowledge is limited in this way is because our consciousness is concentrated on the surface – “the depths of self, the secrets of our total nature are shut away from us behind a wall created by our externalizing consciousness”. [xxx]   In contrast to this, Indian psychology develops a capacity for entering into these depths, awakening what Sri Aurobindo calls “knowledge by direct contact”.  Sri Aurobindo’s colleague, Mirra Richard, describes here the means for gaining such knowledge:

“You must find, in the depths of your being, that which carries in it the sense of universality, limitless expansion, termless continuity.  Then you decentralize, spread out, enlarge yourself; you begin to live in everything and in all beings; the barriers separating individuals from each other break down.  You think in their thoughts, vibrate in their sensations, you feel in their feelings, you live in the life of al.  What seemed inert suddenly becomes full of life, stones quicken, plants feel and will and suffer, animals speak in a language more or less inarticulate, but clear and expressive; everything is animated with a marvelous consciousness without time and limit. [xxxi]

It is clear that – assuming the reader accepts the possibility of such knowledge – we have gone far beyond meditation as a means of relaxation, developing perceptual acuity, or enhancing our experience of color.  However, to provide a comprehensive understanding of the fundamentally different mode of knowledge employed by Indian psychology, it is necessary to consider – if only briefly – what Sri Aurobindo calls the “original and fundamental way of knowing…. a knowledge by identity.” [xxxii]   He describes it as follows:

There is a spiritual intimate vision, a spiritual pervasive entry and penetration, a spiritual feeling in which one sees all as oneself, feels all as oneself, contacts all as oneself. There is a power of spiritual perception of the object and all that it contains or is, perceived in an enveloping and pervading identity, the identity itself constituting the perception. There is a spiritual conception that is the original substance of thought, not the thought that discovers the unknown, but that which brings out the intrinsically known from oneself and places it in self-space, in an extended being of self-awareness, as an object of conceptual self-knowledge. There is a spiritual emotion, a spiritual sense, there is an intermingling of oneness with oneness, of being with being, of consciousness with consciousness, of delight of being with delight of being. There is a joy of intimate separateness in identity, of relations of love joined with love in a supreme unity, a delight of the many powers, truths, beings of the eternal oneness, of the forms of the Formless; all the play of the becoming in the being founds its self-expression upon these powers of the consciousness of the Spirit. But in their spiritual origin all these powers are essential, not instrumental, not organised, devised or created; they are the luminous self-aware substance of the spiritual Identical made active on itself and in itself, spirit made sight, spirit vibrant as feeling, spirit self-luminous as perception and conception. All is in fact the knowledge by identity, self-powered, self-moving in its multitudinous selfhood of one-awareness. The Spirit’s infinite self-experience moves between sheer identity and a multiple identity, a delight of intimately differentiated oneness and an absorbed self-rapture. [xxxiii]

It can be seen from the above description that the essential aim of meditative practice, the main means of gaining knowledge in Indian psychology is substantially different from that used by experimental and phenomenological psychologists.  It is profoundly misleading to characterize meditation as involving “an attitude of attentional manipulation” as did one researcher [xxxiv] , especially if that attitude of attention is seen as essentially no different from the kind of attention which is used in ordinary activities by the untrained mind.  Phenomenologists often speak of meditation as if it were essentially the same as ordinary introspection – the occasional self-examination (or as some psychologists call it, “self-monitoring”) which individuals sometimes engage in when trying to resolve an interpersonal difficulty.

But – again assuming one accepts the outlook and understanding of Indian psychology – meditative practices reach depths of awareness far beyond anything yet developed or even conceived of in modern psychology.  Here is a description from Sri Aurobindo of the knowledge which opens to the yogi when the consciousness is freed from its confinement on the surface:

“[The consciousness] spreads out, feeling the body only as a small part of itself, and begins to contain what before contained it; it achieves the cosmic consciousness and extends itself to be commensurate with the universe. It begins to know inwardly and directly and not merely by external observation and contact the forces at play in the world, feels their movement, distinguishes their functioning and can operate immediately upon them as the scientist operates upon physical forces, accept their action and results in our mind, life, body or reject them or modify, change, reshape, create immense new powers and movements in place of the old small functionings of the nature. We begin to perceive the working of the forces of universal Mind and to know how our thoughts are created by that working, separate from within the truth and falsehood of our perceptions, enlarge their field, extend and illumine their significance, become master of our own minds and active to shape the movements of Mind in the world around us. We begin to perceive the flow and surge of the universal life-forces, detect the origin and law of our feelings, emotions, sensations, passions, are free to accept, reject, new-create, open to wider, rise to higher planes of Life-Power. We begin to perceive too the key to the enigma of Matter, follow the interplay of Mind and Life and Consciousness upon it, discover more and more its instrumental and resultant function and detect ultimately the last secret of Matter as a form not merely of Energy but of involved and arrested or unstably fixed and restricted consciousness and begin to see too the possibility of its liberation and plasticity of response to higher Powers, its possibilities for the conscious and no longer the more than half-inconscient incarnation and self-expression of the Spirit.” [xxxv]

If the reader doubts such things are possible, she may consult the two-volume work “The Record of Yoga”, in which Sri Aurobindo records – over a period of more than 15 years – hundreds of such experiences in minute detail.[xxxvi]   From the nature of such descriptions, it is possible to see that meditative practices which form the basis of Indian psychology involve a method of gaining knowledge which is completely different from that of either experimental or phenomenological psychology.

In fact, as indicated in the passage above, this deeply spiritual way of knowing has the capacity to penetrate not only the secrets of the mind but of matter as well, thus making it clearer that meditative or spiritual knowledge is far more than the action of ordinary attention or introspection. According to Sri Aurobindo, a consciousness which has developed in the manner described above can grasp the essence of matter in a way which has to date escaped the physicists, who for the most part acknowledge that they have no idea what matter or energy are in themselves.  Describing this essential knowledge, Sri Aurobindo says:

“A diamond is a diamond and a pearl a pearl, each thing of its own class, existing by its distinction from all others, each distinguished by its own form and properties. But each has also properties and elements which are common to both and others which are common to material things in general. And in reality each does not exist only by its distinctions, but much more essentially by that which is common to both; and we get back to the very basis and enduring truth of all material things only when we find that all are the same thing, one energy, one substance or, if you like, one universal motion which throws up, brings out, combines, realises these different forms, these various properties, these fixed and  harmonised potentialities of its own being. If we stop short at the knowledge of distinctions, we can deal only with diamond and pearl as they are, fix their values, uses, varieties, make the best ordinary use and profit of them; but if we can get to the knowledge and control of their elements and the common properties of the class to which they belong, we may arrive at the power of making either a diamond or pearl at our pleasure: go farther still and master that which all material things are in their essence and we may arrive even at the power of transmutation which would give the greatest possible control of material Nature.  Thus the knowledge of distinctions arrives at its greatest truth and effective use when we arrive at the deeper knowledge of that which reconciles distinctions in the unity behind all variations. [xxxvii]

What is true of this essential understanding of material things must certainly be true of psychological phenomena as well.  If what Sri Aurobindo describes is true, then what is the place for the other two forms of knowing?  Are they to be discarded altogether?  Does Indian psychology necessarily exist in a conflictual relationship with experimental and phenomenological psychology?  And what is the relationship between the activity of the logical-mathematical intelligence which is the primary means of knowing utilized by the experimentalist, the intrapersonal, interpersonal and existential intelligence which the phenomenologist adds to his knowledge repertoire, and the spiritual intelligence of the yogi?

IV. Integration

“That deeper knowledge does not deprive the other and more superficial of effectivity nor convict it of vanity.” Sri Aurobindo [xxxviii]

If it is true that the knowledge gained by the methods of Indian psychology is in some way more fundamental – more expressive of the Truth and essential nature of things – then the other ways of knowing described in this essay must in some way be secondary.  It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that the logical-mathematical, existential, etc. modes of knowing are to be dispensed with.  Rather, when illumined by the deeper spiritual knowing, they attain their true power.

To use a physical example, the scientist exploring a rock will analyze its constituent parts, subject it to various forces such as heat, light, etc, and attempt to gain an understanding of the processes by which it comes together, functions and disintegrates.   He will gain no understanding of the meaning or purpose of the rock – assuming he even believes such a thing exists for a stone – nor will he be able to detect by this means whether or not there is any kind of consciousness at all associated with it.  The phenomenologist, examining the very same stone, will be able to provide a rich description of the aesthetic qualities of the stone which are outside the purview of the physicist or geologist.  There is clearly no antagonism between these two modes of apprehension, but there doesn’t seem to be any meeting point either.  Each way of knowing discloses something of the object which the other does not.

It takes a third kind of knowing to integrate the other two – one with a clear comprehension of an underlying Unity – not a dull monotonous uniformity, but an infinite Unity, containing within itself an infinitude of possibilities.[xxxix]   According to Sri Aurobindo, the yogi whose inner eye has opened does not see the stone or tree or person as a separate thing, but as “the entire universe in one of its frontal appearances” [xl] :

When we see with the inner vision and sense and not with the physical eye a tree or other object, what we become aware of is an infinite one Reality constituting the tree or object, pervading its every atom and molecule, forming them out of itself, building the whole nature, process of becoming, operation of indwelling energy; all of these are itself, are this infinite, this Reality: we see it extending indivisibly and uniting all objects so that none is really separate from it or quite separate from other objects. Thus each object is that Infinite and one in essential being with all other objects that are also forms and names,—powers, numens,—of the Infinite… [xli] ; The tree and its process would not be what they are, could not indeed exist, if it were a separate existence; forms are what they are by the force of the cosmic existence, they develop as they do as a result of their relation to it and to all its other manifestations. The separate law of their nature is only an application of the universal law and truth of all Nature; their particular development is determined by their place in the general development. The tree does not explain the seed, nor the seed the tree; cosmos explains both and God explains cosmos.” [xlii] .

How might one begin to develop a research protocol which involves all three ways of knowing and integrates them in such a way that they become a harmonious means of deepening our understanding of what we wish to study?   Alan Wallace, Buddhist contemplative and physicist, suggests that we might undertake a project to train contemplatives on the scale of the Manhattan Project, something he admits could take many years or even decades.  However, if a sufficient number of scientists come to recognize the immense gains in understanding and mastery of the physical and psychological worlds that would result from such an undertaking, it is likely and even probable that something of this kind could be done. [xliii]

There are a small number of scientists in the United States and in various parts of the world who are endeavoring to create a favorable environment for the development of intellectual, imaginative, intuitive and spiritual awareness.  Physicist Arthur Zajonc, inspired by the scientific writings of Goethe, has been holding institutes in recent years to bring scientists together who are seeking to integrate these various ways of knowing.

There will no doubt continue to be enormous resistance to incorporating a spiritual perspective, which will probably need to be met in a number of ways.  Wallace has written a wonderful book, “The Taboo of  Subjectivity”, which traces the roots of this resistance, and suggests a number of ways that scientists interested in incorporating a contemplative perspective might do so.  Continued progress in parapsychology and further refinements in the philosophy of science – a philosophical endeavor dominated by the materialists over the last 100 years – will no doubt be helpful as well.

One more approach would be to perform a sort of reversal.  Indian psychology has been approached almost entirely from the perspective of contemporary scientific and phenomenological psychology.  Rather than attempting to convince or convert skeptics by means of philosophic argument or extra-sensory demonstrations – knowing that forced conversion rarely works and often works against the converter – invite those who are sitting on the fence to “try on” another perspective.  In other words, begin with a spiritual paradigm such as is contained within the vast tradition of Indian psychological writings, and use it as a lens from which to view the work of experimental and phenomenological psychologists.   If this essay is correct in its assertion that the ways of knowing associated with these two psychologies are valid but lesser modes of cognition, the gains that might result from engaging in this reversal might be enough to lead some of the fence-sitters to at least consider taking Indian psychology a bit more seriously.

It may ultimately be the case that only through the personal experience of a deeper reality will enough psychologists be open to considering the validity of a spiritual means of understanding ourselves and the world.  To this end, those interested in facilitating the spread of spiritual knowledge will need to find ways to make the means of awakening, developing, and unfolding deeper and higher modes of consciousness more readily accessible.

Endnotes and Bibliography

[1] As noted earlier, by “Indian Psychology” I mean “Indian psychology as interpreted and described by Sri Aurobindo”.

[2] A tachistoscope is a device often used by experimental psychologists to measure the speed of sensory reactions.

[i] See Chalmers, D. 1995. “Facing Up to the Problems of Consciousness”.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 2, #3, pp. 200-220.

[ii]   Using the term “science” in this idiosyncratic way is not meant to be disparaging to experimental scientists.  This usage follows from what many philosophers of science say is the most powerful aspect of the mainstream scientific methodology, the process of reductionism, analyzing things into their essential parts in order to understand their causal mechanisms.  The intention here is only to show that – despite its obvious and dramatic success in certain fields, it is impossible to understand ordinary human experience as well as spiritual experience solely by means of this method.  I emphasize “solely” because as a secondary method along with direct intuitive methodology it may be quite powerful in its own way.

[iii] Knowledge not separate from that which it perceives; quote from savitri

[iv] .  The spiritual – contrary to the assertions of some who would limit spiritual investigation to non-physical data – can be used to discover much about matter that still eludes the physicist; and furthermore, can integrate the data from physics, biology and psychology in a way which no other means of knowing can do.

[v] . Baars, B. 1999.  There is Already A Field of Systematic Phenomenology, and it’s Called ‘Psychology’.  In The View From Within, pp. 216-218. Imprint Academic, Thorverton, UK.

[vi] And the complaints have come not only from the phenomenologists, but from highly respected experimentalists as well. In an issue of The American Psychologist focusing on the work of Sigmund Koch, psychological historian Daniel Robinson described Koch’s characterization of scientific psychology as being “singular among scholarly and scientific pursuits in haing decided on a set of methods before it defined its proper subject matter”.  Phenomenological psychologists suggest that it is in the interest of this activity of defining the subject matter that their descriptive methodology could be employed.  Robinson continues in his description of Koch’s view: “Whether the received method.. was to be brought to bear on animal behavior or the sense of touch or memory or, alas, contemporary cognitive neuroscience, the resulting program of research and writing was, and is, destined to be simplistic, inauthentic and vapid.  It would, and does, substitute compilations for insights, bulk for understanding, and neatness for rigor.  It goes withoutsaying that what currently obtains in cognitive neuroscience – arguably one of the more developed of the scientific psychologies – is rehearsed indefatigably in, say, experimental social psychology and health psychology.  Here, too, the world is focused byt eh formulaic at the expense of the real, where the otherwise laudable criterion of consistency dons the raiment of Dr. Johnson’s hobgoblin.” The American Psychologist, p. 420, Volume 56, #5, May 2001.

[vii] . Baars, ibid, p. 218.

[viii] . Donald, M. 2001.  A Mind So Rare, p. 47. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY.

[ix]    The questions or whether this kind of experience is even fit for any kind of scientific study, or whether phenomenological methods are the best means of studying such experience, are not meant to be addressed here.  The assertion is simply being made that the particular of subjective experience Baars refers to, and the means of studying it, are dramatically different from the object and method of study amongst phenomenological psychologists.

[x] .  Gallagher, S. 1997.  Mutual Enlightenment: Recent Phenomenology in Cognitive Science.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 4, No. 3.

[xi] . Damasio, A. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY.

[xii] . Giorgi, A. 1985. Phenomenology and Psychological Research, p. 1.  Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, PA.

[xiii] “.  The reason that experimental psychologists may at times be so hostile to the attempts of phenomenological psychologists to introduce “soft”, non-mathematical and non-quantitative methods is because within the larger field of science, experimental psychology is itself seen as “soft”.  There are in fact some – perhaps many – within the natural sciences who do not consider even the most rigorously derived data of experimental psychology to be representative of “real” science.

[xiv] .  Fisher, W.E., Self-Deceptionin Phenomenology and Psychological Research, Ed. Amedeo Giorgi.  Pp. 118-154.

[xv] .  See Barrell, J., 1990.  The Experiential Method: Exploring the Human Experience.  Copley Publishing Group, Acton, MA.

[xvi] .  Gallagher, ibid, p. 200.

[xvii] Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. 1988.  Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge University Press, 1988, Cambridge, UK.

[xviii] Kegan, R., Felix, S., Goodman, R., Lahey, L., & Souvaine, E. (Unpublished).  A Guide to the Subject-object Interview: Its Administration and Interpretation.  Boston: Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Laboratory of Human Development.

[xix] . Crick, quoted in Watts, ‘You’re Nothing But a pack of Neurones”, The Journal Of Consciousness Studies, Volume 1, #2, Winter 1994, p. 275.

[xx]   Midgley, M. 2001. Science and Poetry, p. 107.  Routledge, London, UK.

[xxi] . Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 22, p. 236.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxii] . Murphy, M. and Donovan, S. 1997.  The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a Comprehensive Bibliography 1931-1996, p. 107.  Institute of Noetic Sciences, Sausalito, CA.

[xxiii] .  Murphy and Donovan, ibid., p. 140.

[xxiv] . Murphy and Donovan, ibid., p. 142.

[xxv]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, LD: p. 837-838.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxvi] . Gardner, H. 1991.  The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, the K-12 Education That Every Child Deserves,  P. 72.  Penguin Books, New York, NY.

[xxvii] . Personal communication.

[xxviii] . Gardner, ibid, p. 72.

[xxix]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 529.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxx]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 530.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxxi]   Sci of living, p. 124. sri a and the mother on education, 1972.

[xxxii]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 524.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxxiii]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 546-547.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxxiv] . Goleman, D. The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience, p. 4. Tarcher: Los Angeles, CA.

[xxxv]   Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 20, p. 183.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xxxvi] The Record of Yoga is available at www.sabda.org.

[xxxvii] Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 380.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India

[xxxviii] Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 380.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India

[xxxix]   Note that this third way of knowing is not the same as Charles Tart’s suggested “State-specific science”.  Tart has recommended that scientists studying altered states of consciousness – that of dream, or even the various yogic samadhis – should investigate them from within that state, a brave recommendation considering the extreme violation of customary scientific objectivity it involves.  However, without perception of the underlying unity, the essential Absolute reality, there is no means of discovering the true integration of these various states.

[xl]   Sri Aurobindo, The Isha Upanishad.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 13, p. 73.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xli]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life  Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 337.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xlii]   Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.  The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 18, p. 138.  Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

[xliii]   Here is a passage from physicist and philosopher of science Henri Bortoft, which, while perhaps not possessing the same depth of awareness as the one cited in the essay, suggests that contemporary scientists – not just Indian yogis – are capable of developing a similar awareness of the underlying Unity out of which the multiplicity arises:

“It is a fascinating experience to stand in a small forest of bamboo, surrounded by what appears externally to be many bamboos, and to participate imaginatively in the fact that the entire forest is One plant.  This is a graphic illustration of  One in the form of many.  But the bamboo is remarkable in another way as well.  Plants of the same species flower simultaneously, even when they are transplanted far from their original habitat.  Sometimes the period between successive flowerings can be very long.  For one species, phyllostachys bambusoides, it is about 120 years.  Yet wherever this species lives, it flowers simultaneously!  In the late 1960s, plants flowered together in places as far away as China, Japan, England, Russia, and America”. [This was described by Stephen J. Gould in his book “Ever Since Darwin,” Chapter 11].  Bortoft further quotes Grohmann, from his book, “The Plant, Vol. 1, p. 25: The whole plant species, not a single plant, is the unity; it is responsible for the life of the individual plant.” Bortoft, H. 1996.  The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. p. 259.