Thursday, December 27, 2012

extending science to mind, heart, and spirit

this kind of science is fundamentally a bit different from classic science, for at least three reasons:
1) observations may be internal rather than external. in science, i do an experiment and i see that the litmus paper turns blue. then you do the same experiment and you see that the paper turns blue. we talk to each other, and we agree that we observed the same thing. but what if the experiment is to meditate for one year, and the observation is whether i feel calm? it's harder to agree on what we mean, because these internal observations are nuanced and deeply coupled to the act of perception itself that looks at them.
2) observations require more practice to see. we can never see the real world, only the inside of our own brains. if we "see" a particular phenomenon, like "a chair" or "an act of bravery", this means we have a predictive model that hasn't yet been shot down by the sensory evidence. but we can only see things that we have predictive models for. if caveman witnesses a traffic jam, he won't see "a traffic jam". at best he might be able to recognize that each "car" is an autonomous unit. likewise, autistic people probably can't see "extracting oneself from an awkward social situation", yet for other people this is as clear as "a chair". in a science of spirituality, observations of things like "mindfulness" would require the observer to actually have the predictive models for the things being observed, which requires a lot of experience and practice.
3) finally, these experiments might require people with strongly developed compassion and mindfulness to perform the manipulations, for example to provide therapy to psychopaths. such people are rare, and it's difficult to identify them.

when i got back from the airport last night, everything was closed (the 26th, "boxing day", is a holiday in britain), so i ate at subway. in the middle of my sandwich, a young employee came up to my table and said, "you have to move in 30 seconds". i was like, "what?". he said, "you can't sit here now, the chairs have to be moved". my first reaction was, ok, i see what you mean, but you're being really rude about it. i was preparing to be a dick back to him, but then i looked at him and it struck me that he seemed like he might have asperger's. for him, it's just a mechanical job: move the customers so he can move the chairs. he knows when he needs to move the chairs (i.e., 30 seconds from now), and i'm in his way. so i collected my luggage and as i was leaving, i looked in his eyes, gave him a smile and said "have a good evening" as warmly as i could. this is on the theory that no matter how weirdly the brain is wired, there's something human inside most of us, which you can find if you look hard enough. and it felt like there was something in him that responded to being treated nicely. probably he normally gets very bad reactions from people, and this just reinforces his isolation. in this sense, mental illness is a deeply social phenomenon, involving interpersonal feedback loops.

but what i think is even more interesting about this is why i decided not to be a dick to him. it was because i thought "he has asperger's, so he needs some special help". but the really important thing is this: *anybody* who's being a dick to you, needs special help.

100 years ago, we didn't know about autism or schizophrenia. naturally, people with these mental illnesses would do things that hurt us (i.e., rudeness, socially inappropriate behavior, violence, etc). and our reaction was to label them as fools, people of low moral character, imbeciles, etc. we would lock them up or even execute them for their crimes.

now, we recognize that it's an illness and they need help. but the point is that there's nothing magical about our current diagnostic categories. in another 100 years, we'll have probably identified the neural underpinnings of psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and even the things that make people commit mass killings. then, rather than saying, "you're fundamentally a bad person and you don't deserve another chance", we'll say, "at the core you're a human being, you're struggling with extraordinary suffering, and we'll do everything we can to help".

but even right now, if we want to, we can act based on this general understanding. when someone does something bad, they are the ones who are hurt the most. the suffering that a victim feels is nothing compared to the suffering that the criminal feels. i know this from my own experience-- doing something bad arises from a deep suffering. it's the exact opposite of being kind to yourself. and having done the bad thing, it becomes even harder to admit this weakness to yourself, because you have to take responsibility for what you've done. in the people who commit mass killings, i think this guilt is locked away so deeply that they literally feel like they would die if they let themselves feel it.

"Let me be thankful, first, because he never robbed me before; second, because although he took my purse, he did not take my life; third, because although he took what I possessed, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed." -- Matthew Henry