How To Investigate Spiritual Questions Scientifically
A Basic Guide in 15 Minutes
How do we investigate spiritual questions scientifically?
Let's assume for now that this is a good question to pursue.
Let’s say we’re looking for practical, no-nonsense, rock-solid truth in these matters.
We aren’t looking for elaborate theories, stories, or speculations. Let’s say we aren’t wanting to just believe what we’re told, or build skyscrapers of thought on shaky foundations with questionable premises.
We’re wanting to start fresh with a clean slate. We’re looking for something that really holds up under scrutiny, makes sense, and rings true. We’re looking for solid, grounded, authentic stuff that we can see, test, feel, verify for ourselves.
This sounds like a mission for some trusty, loveable, “I fell asleep with my lab coat on again, and now it’s starting to smell funny” LiveReal Agents.
1. Ask a “Big Question.”
It can be any existential riddle life has thrown at you that you think is interesting.
"The important thing is not to stop questioning."
- Albert Einstein
A few suggestions.
What’s it all about?
Who am I?
What am I?
What’s the point?
How should I live?
Why am I here?
What is sacred?
Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
How can I overcome suffering?
What the heck is going on?
There are plenty of others. Pick one that grabs you.
“Great problems are in the street.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
2. Form an answer.
What’s your best guess?
It’s OK at this point to pull an answer out of your fanny.
(Dirty secret here: all scientists do it. Sure, ideally it’s a well-informed, well-educated, highly erudite fanny that’s full of expert observations. But when it’s time to come up with a hypothesis to test, if you really boil it down, it’s all some variation of “think of something.” Even math starts with axioms.)
“In general, we look for a new law
by the following process:
first, we guess it…”
- Richard Feynman
So, just think of something.
Or, if you don’t have an answer of your own that you like, no problem. Just borrow somebody else’s answer. Copying from your neighbor’s paper is allowed here.
In fact, it’s encouraged. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but if you’re asking a basic question about life, there’s a really good chance that you won’t be the first person in the history of humanity to ask it.
And that’s a good thing. Because some of the brightest folks who have ever lived have wrestled with these questions. And some have even left decent records of their progress.
"Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings,
so that you shall gain easily
what others have labored hard for."
So, a good place to start: seek out what other smart folks have already said on the matter. (This should save you from reinventing the wheel.)
So, now we have the best answer we can find – either our own, or someone else’s.
“A hypothesis is…the obligatory starting point of all experimental reasoning.
With it no investigation would be possible, and one would learn nothing:
One could only pile up barren observations.
To experiment without a preconceived idea is to wander aimlessly.”
- Claude Bernard
Most folks stop here.
They have a question. Then pull an answer out of their fanny. And…full stop.
But what they wind up with via that method is mere opinion.
They’re just declaring stuff. As far as science is concerned, it’s empty talk, or arbitrary speculation. It’s about as valuable as rubber lips on a woodpecker. That plus a dime is worth ten cents.
“Mere opinion” isn’t the stuff of science. There can be a place for that, but not here.
“The deepest sin against the human mind
is to believe things without evidence.”
- Aldous Huxley
So, what sets what we’re doing apart?
In a word: testing.
3. Test your answer.
The next step in this process is to treat your answer as if it was a hypothesis.
And test this hypothesis.
Good science makes use of an injunction. Essentially, “If you want to know this, do this.”
If you want to get a closer look at the moon, look through a telescope. If you want to see cells, look through a microscope. If you want to know what it’s like to drive a Ferrari and really let her roar, first earn a lot of money, then go somewhere with a lot of open road and not many cops.
(Who said science had to be boring?)
OK, so how do we test our answers?
We can put our hypothesis through a wide spectrum of tests. They can range from simple to complex, straightforward to difficult, safe to borderline hazardous.
“Sit down before fact as a little child,
be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,
follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads,
or you shall learn nothing.”
- Thomas Huxley
One test is simple:
Try to put your answer into words.
Just explain it clearly, through either speech or writing. Then sit with it, and ask if it really makes sense or rings true for you. And try to be brutally, brutally honest with your answer.
Seems almost too simple, right?
But even something as small as this can be powerful.
Granted, this is a bit different from running a litmus test in chemistry class.
In chemistry class, the litmus test is fairly straightforward. (“Is it acidic or basic? Let’s run the test & see if the paper turns red or blue.”)
But we’re hunting different game here.
Playing with beakers is kid stuff compared to what we’re after.
Sometimes just the simple “test” described above – call it “the articulation test” (our eternal struggle to translate our thoughts into words) – can yield some surprisingly plump and juicy fruit by itself.
By taking things that are subjective (our ideas, thoughts, etc) and making them more objective.
Simply writing them down can do that.
This means taking many of our ideas, thoughts, etc that are often unconscious and making them conscious.
It might seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes just knowing what we really think takes some effort.
"To see what is in front of one's nose
needs a constant struggle."
- George Orwell
And sometimes this struggle reveals holes in our thinking.
Which is progress.
When that happens, it means we’ve now exposed some bugs in our thinking. Which is a good thing, because now that they’re exposed, we can set about correcting them.
And of course, the opposite can happen: our struggle to put stuff into words sometimes confirms that our thinking is essentially correct.
That’s also progress. We’ve confirmed that we’re on solid ground.
And often, just the struggle alone can generate fresh insights. The effort of digging and translating can shake loose a bunch of other stuff that we didn’t even realize was down there.
And that stuff that gets shaken loose? That’s good data to use for the next round of experiments.
Of course, the above was one single, simple test. There are plenty of others.
Find someone who disagrees with your hypothesis. Listen to their best argument, and look at their best evidence.
Often we can discover that someone who disagrees is actually just looking at a different set of data. (Like the story of the elephants and blind men, sometimes there can appear to be more disagreements than there actually are.)
Check to see if this hypothesis is falsifiable.
A good answer will be falsifiable. Meaning, it can be proven right or wrong, one way or another.
Some ideas are so vague, broad and slippery (Freud’s and Marx’s theories are classic examples) that they can be used to rationalize everything and anything (usually with hindsight.) This means they can be used to explain everything and therefore nothing.
Salespeople and politicians love those kinds of ideas. For our purposes here, we don’t. If we want something scientific, we want it to be refutable. Meaning, we want something that can either fail or succeed, that we can prove either right or wrong.
In fact, even for hypotheses we like, we want try to prove them wrong, the way a fighter tests his strength against other fighters.
Part of what makes science so successful is that it actively seeks to correct errors. In the same way, if we want to be successful in this endeavor, we should deliberately seek out ways that we might be wrong and push through until we get to the bottom of them. That way, whatever survives the test, we know is strong.
“A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions;
rather, it is a matter of having the courage
for an attack on one’s convictions.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Another way to test is basically to put it through an interrogation.
Does it ring true?
Does it make sense?
Does it really make sense?
Does it account for all data?
Does it contradict any other data?
Is it consistent with your own experience?
Is it consistent with all other data that you’re aware of?
Is it consistent with itself?
Is there a chance that it’s a piece of a bigger puzzle, and not the entire puzzle itself?
Of course, these are just a few examples. But the field is wide open.
In this sense, science almost becomes something closer to art. (Ironic, right?) Figuring out how to come up with great tests – and deciding which tests are worth running – are what great scientists do that makes them great. It takes hard work, gumption, and yes – a lot of creativity.
“Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it...or because it is traditional, or because you yourselves have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings – that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”
- The Buddha
We could say more on this, but first we need to address a key question:
Aren’t these tests really just philosophical, and not scientific?
Here’s our answer:
Granted, there is a lot of philosophy (call it just “rigorous thinking” or whatever you want) in all this.
But there’s a difference in what we’re doing here. “Mere philosophy” often involves thinking as much as possible. It’s gymnastics for the intellect. And once we’ve done that, we often wind up in one of two places: either 1) a paradox, or 2) a question with no answer.
And then it stalls out.
And this gets to why rock stars have groupies and philosophers (usually) don’t. It’s because philosophers often ask questions they don’t have answers to, which either creates confusion with no resolution (which isn’t most folks’ idea of a good time) or veers off into some stale, toothless debate that seem to go nowhere.
But what we’re getting at here goes beyond that.
By getting off the couch, leaving the armchairs and pipes behind, and getting dirty.
In other words, go there.
Getting out in the field, leveling up, and actually testing these ideas kicks us into science mode, which – when it works – makes progress.
Of course, devising and running the right tests can sometimes be difficult. And sometimes they can waste a lot of valuable time. Ideally, we don’t want to spend decades thinking we want to be an opera singer before realizing we really don’t, and never actually did.
Luckily, our next phase will help immensely. Which is…
4. Examine the results.
This step is no surprise: take the results you got back from your test, and try to make sense of them.
“There are two possible outcomes:
If the result confirms the hypothesis,
then you’ve made a measurement.
If the result is contrary to the hypothesis,
then you’ve made a discovery.”
- Enrico Fermi
Ideally, you can take these results and run them by a group of smart folks that you can trust and who will be honest with you. (If you’re lucky enough to know folks like that.)
This kind of peer-review can be a critical step in the process. Feedback from others who know a thing or two can either expose errors (which is valuable) or confirm that things are on track (which is also valuable.)
Eventually, as you may guess, this process can pick up momentum. And with momentum, you can make some serious discoveries.
But a crucial element will play a key role this:
The key trick is to eliminate bias.
Science isn’t personal.
If the goal here is to be scientific, we’ll want to make sure the results aren’t tainted by personal opinions.
“Bias” in this context means unexamined assumptions about yourself and the world and everything in it.
“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.
It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
- Mark Twain
Most of us are chock-full of bias. Which is to say, we have lots of beliefs that are unconscious and invisible. Yet they filter and color our perception of the world in ways we aren’t often aware of. (This often goes by the name “worldview.”) And – strangely – we often defend our beliefs as if our lives depended on them. If someone threatens our beliefs, we feel threatened. We tend to instinctively defend our beliefs – whatever they are – instead of stepping back and questioning whether they’re accurate, and so, worth defending.
We often consider our unconscious assumptions – when we think about them consciously – to be self-evident or axiomatic or “just obvious.”
But that’s the thing.
We see them as “so obvious!” that we don’t even think about them.
We often aren’t even aware that we have them. It’s as if we put on glasses, then forgot about putting them on. And now, we’re wearing them without realizing it.
We often don’t even realize we have them until some kind of experience exposes them.
It works like the physical eye. The eye can’t see itself. In fact, it can see almost anything within range, except for itself. (Because the eye is, for us, the source of seeing, not a thing that’s seen.) So the best any eye can hope for if it wants to see itself is some kind of mirror. That allows the eye to see a reflection of itself.
It seems to be the same with us. Our own bias is often invisible until we experience some kind of existential mirror that reflects it back to us. (Good friends – and enemies – can help with that too.)
“There are only two people
who can tell you the truth about yourself:
an enemy who has lost his temper
and a friend who loves you dearly.”
When those unconscious beliefs are dug up and examined in the full light of day, we sometimes discover that they don’t really hold up under scrutiny. Other times, of course, we find that they hold up just fine.
But whether they hold up or not, just the act of uncovering and becoming conscious of deeply-held assumptions alone can often be corrective and liberating in itself.
(Of course, this can be terrifying, which is another – very interesting – conversation.)
Here, again, is a process of “the unconscious being made conscious.”
Or to say it another way: it’s a process of many subjective ideas being brought out into the light to be examined objectively.
In this way, it might feel more like fishing than science.
(See? This stuff doesn’t have to be boring.)
But whether we’re probing the waters of the deep for bad ideas we’re secretly nurturing – an inner Moby Dick – or simply testing our thoughts about the world against some kind of external measure – a ruler for our inner maps – we can wind up becoming more objective.
This translates into us having a clearer view of the world and ourselves.
And this can have an interesting side effect:
It can also help us understand other people a lot more.
How? Because we’ll start to realize the degree that others don’t share the same unconscious assumptions we do. Once our own assumptions become clear to us, we can start to become aware of others folks’ unconscious assumptions as well. This can help us understand where they’re coming from. Behavior that otherwise seemed mysterious can suddenly start making sense.
So: the first three steps of this process (ask question, form answer, test answer) can stir us up a bit.
This can shake loose some of our hidden assumptions so they’ll rise to the top.
And that’s where – if we’re on the lookout – we can see and examine them in the light of day.
And that’s where a lot of the real action happens.
"When all is said and done,
science actually takes hard work
and a willingness to sometimes find out
that your most cherished hypothesis
- Alice Dreger
Before we move on, a key point:
August Turak said it well: a scientist looking at the world through a dirty telescope is going to have a rough time seeing clearly and gathering good evidence. To see clearly, he or she would need to clean the instrument that’s being looked through.
The “instruments” we use to see the world is our own minds.
If our “instrument” has bias in it, it’s like looking at the world through dirty eyeglasses. If we have stacks of unconscious assumptions knocking around in our thinking, well, there’s a pretty good chance that our conclusions about the world will come out skewed and distorted.
To remedy this, a process of digging for hidden assumptions and examining them can help ensure that the instrument you’re using to perform these tests is reliable and accurate. (A branch that really focused on this – “assumptionology” – would be really useful.)
“The soul does not grow by addition
but by subtraction.”
We could call this process “cleansing the doors of perception.”
Or, we could just say this: “know yourself.”
“If the doors of perception were cleansed
everything to man would appear as it is,
- William Blake
“Let me know myself, Lord,
and I shall know you.”
- St. Augustine of Hippo
“If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.”
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Return to Step One.
At this point, there’s a good chance that whatever questions you’ve asked have stirred up answers. And the answers you’ve found have stirred up more questions.
Now it’s time to pursue those questions.
This isn’t an endless loop. This is progress.
That’s pretty much it.
This is a method.
This method doesn’t tell you what you’ll find.
It encourages you to seek.
And it offers some suggestions on how to do it effectively, so you waste as little time and energy barking up wrong existential trees as possible.
As for the “finding” part, well – that part’s up to you.
“…man must find his own Soul.”
- Chandogya Upanishad 8.7
“Seek and ye shall find.”
- Matthew 7:7
“Work out your salvation with diligence."
- The Buddha’s final words
(And by the way, quick side note: we aren’t claiming that any of this is really original.)
If there’s nothing new under the sun, well, this approach is definitely soaking up some sun.
The approach we’re discussing here contains aspects of Zen, The Albigen System of Richard Rose as explicated by August Turak, the apophatic tradition in Christianity (which includes folks like Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas and other heavy hitters), much of what is articulated by the Dalai Lama in Buddhism, self-inquiry by Ramana Maharshi, some aspects of Advaita Vedanta and the Pratyabhijna system in Kashmir Shaivism, the integral approach described by Ken Wilber, certain approaches of Jnana Yoga, and so on.
There are plenty of others (apologies to anyone left off the list), but the point is: none of this is really original, and lots of other folks have approached these problems in this way.
But wait: isn’t there a lot more to this?
In a word: yes and no.
(OK, that wasn’t “a word.” Let’s try that again.)
In a way, no. That’s pretty much it.
The scientific method itself is fairly straightforward. (Ask a question, construct a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, examine results, etc). Sure, there are always a few more decimal places we can work out. But in regards to being at least enough to yield some serious fruit, well, as far as we can see, that really is pretty much it.
In another way, yes, there’s definitely more to all this.
To clarify: there’s the method itself, and there’s what you discover by using that method.
When Bacon invented (or formalized, if you prefer) the scientific method, he didn’t have iPhones in mind, or televisions with remote controls, or space shuttles. He wasn’t prescribing answers. He was prescribing a method for finding answers yourself.
So in regards to the things you can discover by using the scientific method, that part is totally wide open.
In that sense, it’s game-on. The world is your oyster.
“Don’t listen to what they say.
- Chinese Proverb
So, what does all this get us?
when tested by the severe processes of modern investigation
commonly enough fade away into mere dreams;
but it is singular how often the dream turns out
to have been a half-waking one, presaging a reality.”
- T. H. Huxley
Why bother with this?
If we work this “method,” what are we hoping to get out of it?
Our answer: as we noted in the beginning of this little exploration, briefly, the goal here is to find practical, no-nonsense, non-bogus answers to Big Questions of life that we can see, test, feel, verify for ourselves. Answers that can make our lives better, and make our thinking sharper, and give us clarity and confidence in our interactions with ourselves and the world.
But wait: what kind of actual “answers” are we looking for here, literally?
“Normal” science, after all, usually aims for with peer-reviewed, replicatable results that can be published in professional journals and discussed by others working in the field.
But we aren’t aiming for that kind of thing.
This is about good science, but on a personal level.
Our aim here isn’t necessarily to make a small contribution to a big, lumbering, abstract body of knowledge that will then move on without us.
After all, in regards to personal questions about life such as these, you probably aren’t working to get some kind of exotic, barely-statistically-significant result published in some obscure journal that nobody will ever read or hear about.
Instead, our main goal at hand here is finding real, lived, flesh-and-blood answers to core questions of life itself. Your life, my life, and everyone else’s.
But to clarify even more: what we’re after isn’t merely an intellectual answer to an intellectual puzzle.
We’re after something with a bit more force to it.
The kind of answer we’re hunting for isn’t a mere chunk of information.
“Normal” science often results in statistics, phrases, equations (E=mc2), short descriptions, or other nuggets of information.
But the real results we’re after – the most valuable data we can hope for – come in a different form.
Again, we aren’t mere academics here, looking to score a sweet tenure gig or land a nice stash of grant money. We’re breathing, thinking, feeling, gasping, mortal critters who find themselves on a spinning blue planet for what will likely be a very brief time, trying to figure out just what the heck is going on.
Even if we find a great math equation, snazzy formula, handy theory, sexy statistic (does that even exist?) – in the end, that isn’t enough. Not to satisfy what we’re looking for here.
So, then: what will?
Answer: an experience.
You might call it a powerful “insight,” a “Eureka moment,” an “Aha” experience.
It can be a moment – like something experienced by scientists and folks alike – when everything suddenly comes together in a new way, a light bulb turns on, and the answer is revealed.
The treasure we’re hunting here isn’t theoretical or abstract. It can hit us on an intellectual or emotional level, or even deeper. The delight that a mathematician or computer program experiences when they solve it or something works – it’s that kind of thing we’re after. But on a different level.
It’s something we’re all familiar with on some level. It’s an experience where you realize something you didn’t before, where certain things become self-evident that weren’t evident before.
To be clear: it’s not that they weren’t there before. More often than not, they were there the whole time. We just didn’t notice them.
"The universe is full of magical things,
patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."
- Eden Phillpotts
Intellectually, these can be understood as suddenly taking on a new paradigm or a new set of axioms, assumptions or First Principles. It’s where certain things become obvious to you, because you perceive them directly.
Call it experiential spirituality or contemplative spirituality or whatever you prefer, these kinds of experiences (or perceptions) are critical components in the actual practice of science, even though they’re rarely discussed.
Stories of key moments from Archimedes (the bathtub) to Newton (the apple) to Kekule (the snakes) to Einstein (riding on light) and plenty of others easily demonstrate: the moment of insight comes before all the verbal and mathematical proofs that followed.
“You know these things as thoughts, but your thoughts are not your experiences, they are the echo and after-effect of your experiences: as when your room trembles after a carriage goes past. I however am sitting in the carriage, and often I am the carriage itself.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
These experiences have to be interpreted correctly, of course (a critical component), and then, ideally, tested, verified, confirmed, etc.
But the crucial part that kicks it all off is the original experience of insight.
"We do not need theories
so much as the experience
that is the source of the theory."
- R. D. Laing
Whether you can convince anyone else to perceive it or not is a different matter. And a secondary one.
In science, of course, the most valuable part of all this is the proof – the “working out the math” of it.
Einstein had a question/intuition/insight about the way space and time might work. But if he had stopped there, very likely, nobody would have noticed. He had to work out the math in order to pass on his insight. If he hadn’t done that, his insights would have come and gone with him alone.
For our purposes here, it’s the reverse: the insight itself is what we’re after.
If we’re able to work out math afterward and share it with other folks, that’s great, and incredibly valuable. But it’s also secondary.
The key thing, and most important, is cracking it first, for ourselves.
So, where do we go from here?
The above is really the meat of the idea.
That said, there's seemed to be a few loose ends we felt the need to tie up.
If you’re reading this, you might have one of two reactions:
1) This is all pretty basic.
2) This stirred up approximately seven thousand questions it hasn’t answered.
Fair enough. That said, maybe it’s basic, but we have to start somewhere.
"We have now sunk to a depth
at which restatement of the obvious
is the first duty of intelligent men."
- George Orwell
(That, and we’re trying to keep this digestible in under 15 minutes or so. Maybe unsuccessfully.)
The idea here was to dive into a potentially messy situation and lay a concrete foundation that we can then build on. So, yes – we probably are stirring up a thousand questions that we aren’t answering yet.
But that’s because this is designed to be a brief conversation-starter. Not the whole conversation.
The fun part – the rest of the conversation – is still ahead.
We’re planning to continue exploring along these lines. There truly are major issues that these topics touch on, and they all deserve some serious explication.
So, our plan is to keep digging. Hopefully we’ll have some additional progress that we can bring to the table before too long.
So, yes. There’s a lot to figure out.
And if you’ve read this far, well, it sounds like you’re interested in that. Meaning, in figuring things out.
Here at LiveReal.com, we’re interested in figuring things out, too.
LiveReal is a website – a “Headquarters for Seekers” – for folks who are working along these lines to try to ask questions about life and figure out no-nonsense answers.
The real work – and the fun stuff – really starts once we start putting this framework into practice.
We’re in the early stages of working along a few of these lines. We’re a ragtag band of underdogs trying to figure this stuff with a lot of books, caffeine and machetes (the inner kind) – but we’ve made some progress. A few examples you can currently find on the site: What is “love”? Who, or What, is “God”? Why do we suffer? Who am I? What is real “faith”? Why are we here? And etc.
We’re still in the early stages of gathering data (in the form of different perspectives) from all over the place, digesting them, trying to sort the apples from the worms, and hopefully emerging with some bits that pass our sniff tests and baloney detectors.
There’s a lot of work to do.
But we don’t see it as work work. It’s more like an adventure. It’s a lot of fun. And challenging, And a bit dangerous sometimes, and confusing, and inspiring, and harrowing, and it knocks you on your butt sometimes, and then hopefully you get up stronger. And so on.
In other words, it really is an adventure.
“There is only one great adventure
and that is inwards towards the self.”
- Henry Miller
So if you’re interested in this kind of thing…well, we are too.
We have a community of folks who are also interested in this kind of thing. We talk about this kind of stuff. It’s a place where good conversation about important topics – respectful, reasoned, fruitful dialogue – is central. And where we gather to talk about our experiments, our results, our discoveries, our mistakes, our bias and blunders, and every so often, have a laugh or two about it.
So, stop on by sometime. Or even join.
Hope to see you around.