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Science, Spirituality and the Problem of Oversimplification

Published on October 1, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

As part of my work, I teach research methods so I certainly appreciate the value and validity of science as a method for inquiring into the nature of reality. But so often, what we find in science (maybe by necessity?) is a kind of gross over-generalization. For example, the sciences with which I am most familiar tend to paint their explanatory pictures in very broad brushstrokes. Read any headline reporting on some finding in psychology or medicine and what you’ll invariably find are fairly crude, oversimplified descriptions of the phenomena under study: “Eating this food helps prevent this disease; Certain early childhood experiences are correlated with particular late-life behaviors; Practicing meditation or taking these prescription medications can reduce the symptoms of depression; People who experience particular types of emotional reactions show this kind of brain activity”… and on and on it goes.

In all these examples, what the scientific findings are essentially saying, in one form or another, is that on average, if you do this thing, take this substance, practice this therapeutic technique, etc. this will tend to happen. But of course, if you do therapy x or eat food y, you won’t necessarily experience outcome z, because the explanatory models (e.g., “this causes that”) are simply too overgeneralized, unsophisticated, and lacking in nuance. With or without the support of science, we might be inclined to say that on average, if you do this, this will happen. However, describing how things tend to behave (or, if we’re talking about relationships between phenomena, how they might influence other things) says nothing about how and what they actually are specifically, at least not in any definitive sense.

A great example of this type of imprecision is the phenomenon of personality inventories. The myriad typologies that are out there—the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram to name but two—theoretically tell us something about the way people tend to behave, on average. Imagine for a moment, a classic bell-shaped statistical curve that represents one’s “personality”—the myriad qualities, characteristics, dispositions, etc. that make up who they are. The qualities that person displays most frequently would be illustrated by the midpoint of the bell curve and those areas that lie closer to the center. Then as you ventured out from either side of that central area, you would begin to encounter aspects of the person that diverge from his or her average or “usual” tendencies. 800px-Bellcurve.svg

However, even if the person, on average tends to more frequently display those qualities and characteristics that coalesce around the midpoint of the bell-shaped curve, the complete picture of who they are can only ever be captured by including the entirety of the curve, i.e., the sum total of that person’s qualities, not merely those they are the most likely to exhibit. So if, as we are prone to categorize a person according to some personality typology or characterize them by some other psychological or biological classificatory system, we are, by necessity oversimplifying who and what they are. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve found myself resistant to such typologies as I find them to be terribly unsatisfying in their oversimplification, failing in the end to fully capture the infinitely rich, nuanced, multidimensional creatures that we are.

Whether we are scientists or not, it’s interesting to consider this seemingly insatiable thirst human beings seem to have to want to explain, reduce, and in the process, oversimplify phenomenal experiences. Of course it is understandable that we would search out the possible causes of our physical and psychological difficulties and in turn identify remedies to counter those causal factors. But I wonder why there is this persistent tendency to unquestioningly swallow either scientific or lay explanatory frameworks that represent such incomplete and ultimately misleading renderings of reality, oversimplifications of a realm—human experience—that is exceedingly complex and ultimately irreducible.

As an example of this popular as well as scientific tendency, I was recently reading an online article from Forbes, “The Seven Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain.” The authors argue that the “ancient benefits” of these practices are now being confirmed by modern scientific methods such as EEG and FMRI. However, in point of fact the relationships (between meditative practices and brain activity) are tenuous at best. The reality is that meditation practice is associated statistically with changes in different brain regions and networks but only in some people who practice and even in those people, only to some extent. It is so far from actually being a one-to-one correspondence (“do this practice and this change will happen in this particular way in your brain”) that to talk about meditation being able to “change your brain” in specific and predictable ways is, well laughable. [Of course, this issue isn’t unique to meditation—one finds the same problem of oversimplifying cause/effect relationships with other therapeutic modalities as well from psychotropic meditations to psychotherapy.] Despite the amazing contributions neuroscience is making to our understanding of the human brain, the idea that we can take exceedingly complex phenomena such as human thought and emotion and understand them solely in terms of (i.e., reduce them to) basic, neuro-chemical activities and interactions is a prime example of the problem with oversimplification so rampant not just in science but in life.

Not surprisingly, language itself, the very medium through which the myriad forms of knowledge are transmitted is by its very nature, also reductionistic. Regardless of the word—e.g., happiness, sorrow, joy, grief, cloud, mountain, pleasure, pain—language functions as a kind of conceptual shorthand, a way of collapsing exceedingly complex arrays of phenomena and experience into single descriptors. Language has considerable utility in so far as its capacity to convey a general impression of what is being seen, heard, felt, touched or otherwise experienced in any given moment. But the experiences themselves can never be fully captured by the linguistic placeholders used to convey them. Phenomenal experiences we attempt to convey with such words as beautiful, delicious, painful, or infuriating can never actually be conveyed by those words for the experiences are far too vast, complex and multidimensional to be easily or accurately rendered by concepts and the language used to articulate them.

For example, take the state of mind, anxiety. What is it? To be sure, we have a word and regularly employ that word to characterize a particular type of human experience. But what precisely is it that we’re characterizing when we use the label, anxiety? As we look up in the night sky and see that object called the “Big Dipper,” we’re essentially recognizing and then naming a particular patterning of lights. Similarly, we could say that the phenomenon we label as “anxiety” refers to a distinctive pattern of experience, energy and information. But naming that general pattern anxiety doesn’t actually tell us very much about it as it leaves out the specific details, failing to capture (i.e., oversimplifying) the extraordinarily diverse and complex array of energies that constitutes the experience in its actuality.  We try to convey what’s transpiring experientially by generalizing about those experiences, saying such things as, “I went for a walk today and had a wonderful time,” or “I had class tonight but it was really boring.” But while such conceptual/linguistic renderings give us a very general impression about what took place and the nature of it, our experiences are made up of very specific details and not generalities, which are always abstractions about those specifics. When I share that I am “feeling anxious,” I am sharing a generalized (i.e., conceptualized) picture about what is being experienced and not it’s actuality which cannot be reduced conceptually. Our definitions of things and experiences may represent a useful kind of communicational shorthand. But the actual experiences themselves are utterly beyond at the same time inclusive of the concepts used to define them.8001180645_32dc6705c6_b

The bottom line is that human experiences (and their putative causes) transcend any and all explanatory frameworks. The concepts we utilize to point to and describe the presence of specific phenomenal experiences (and their relationships to other phenomena) may be able to convey something about those experiences and relationships but like the aforementioned personality inventories, the frameworks and models will always fall short. In the final analysis, any modeling of reality will necessarily be an oversimplification just as a map of California, no matter how detailed, could never hope to capture the infinitude of qualities and characteristics one would actually find in the territory itself.

Incidentally, this is as true in science as it is in spirituality. For just as neuroscience seems hell bent on reducing the complexity of human experience to electrochemical firings in the brain, so too do most spiritual teachings fall prey to their own brand of reductionism, taking the realm of human experience which is by nature, indescribable, infinite and multidimensional and collapsing it into unidimensional concepts and descriptors (e.g., spirit, light, consciousness, God, awareness) that are themselves, experientially inconceivable and irreducible. california

In the final analysis, the territory we call experience is what’s real; the scientific and spiritual maps, beautiful and elegant as they may be are nothing more than mere abstractions, conceptual renderings of an actuality that cannot, in the end be fairly rendered or conceived.

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