10. Model Making in Science and Daily Life
“The search for truth is more precious than its possession.”
— Albert Einstein
The process of science is one my inspirations for spiritual life. The expansion of consciousness brought to humanity by science is something from which I have tried to learn. The open-ended nature of science, always seeking a greater approximation to truth, a greater understanding of reality and, with it, an attitude of seeking and non-attachment to current understandings, is a basic approach that I try to apply to life. While many people are inspired by the teachings of the great spiritual teachers of humanity, I think science is a relatively untouched realm for discovering teachings of a different sort that are practical and as profound as those of the spiritual masters. Science has transformed our world and continues to touch us profoundly in ways we scarcely even see. Is there something about the scientific method that we can apply to our own lives, without having to be professional scientists?
For most of our history, humans thought that the sun rotated around the earth. What else could be more obvious? It rose in the east and set in the west each day. Only through careful, laborious observations of the stars and planets at night, was it shown that the earth orbited the sun. Ultimately, with the contributions of many scientists, including Copernicus and culminating with Galileo and Newton, the geocentric model, where the earth was seen as center of the universe, was revealed false and replaced by the heliocentric model, where the earth and other planets revolved around the sun. We now take it for granted, but it has been an enormous change in not only our understanding of the cosmos, but also our place within it.
Models of virtually all the phenomena of the physical world have evolved this way over the past 500 years through science.1 This has almost always involved renouncing an old model shown to be false, or expansion of a model shown to be limited. It is not an easy process. Even scientists want to hold on to the models they know or have discovered in the face of conflicting evidence. In the end, individual scientists themselves do not determine the value of a model. Instead there is a whole ongoing feedback process of peer review that includes the ability of others to reproduce experiments or observations.
One of the basic themes of science is model making. Scientists are forever creating models of phenomena. Most are mathematical or quasi mathematical models that try and explain phenomena. Models are always simplifications of reality. Hopefully the most important aspects of a real situation are captured by the model and those that are of little consequence ignored. Indeed, that would be the hallmark of a good model. The better such models are at predicting outcomes of experiments or matching observations, the closer they are thought to reflect reality. Models sometimes involve the invention of new words to describe new concepts that have been discovered to help explain reality. Such words such as electron or valence describe concepts not directly perceived by our senses but, after some time, because of their powerful explanatory value, they become more real than our perceptions. Models that are poor in prediction either get discarded or improved and the work of science involves many different methods and individuals over many generations using and investigating models. It would be no exaggeration to say that our entire world has been transformed by scientific models. They are at the heart of all the scientific discoveries and technological innovations.
We are used to paying attention by filtering out everything except what interests us or suits us. We make arbitrary selections from the complete message of life and are left with little bits of information. Our attention has its definite limits, but we are rarely familiar with them. When we pay attention we reduce our outlook to the extreme, while our inner discourse struggles to hide the evidence around us.2
Science is just a refinement of everyday thinking. We ourselves are model makers. We extract the most important aspects of our experienced reality, “remember” it and use those aspects in building up our model of reality. We test those models again and again as we live. Sometimes we find that the models work and other times they don’t. If we are open to correction, our models can improve over time and become closer to “reality”. Indeed, this could be just another way of describing development or maturation. Of course, whether a model “works” or not depends on what our goals or intentions are. For example, if our intention is power, certain models are better than others. In this model we may emphasize the detection of rivalries, discover weaknesses and strengths of “opponents”. The model will be good at winning power. If our goal is inclusion, we may become expert at finding common ground with others and understanding, accepting, even celebrating differences. The models we create are not value free and awareness of what values we uphold is not always conscious.
The models we have of reality most often take the form of narratives. These are the stories within which we live. They are often unconscious stories that help us organize the vast sensory and emotional experiences we have. Brain research over many years, particularly so called “split brain” research, has given us some deep insights into how this process works. A little digression into some of this research reveals a flaw in the way the model making narrator in our brain often works. Knowledge of this flaw is key to any expansion or unfolding of our own models.
In the 1960s, Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry pioneered so called “split brain research”. In this research, therapeutic surgeries were done on people who had uncontrollable epileptic seizures. The very dense nerve fibers that connect the left and right cerebral hemispheres, called the corpus collosum, were severed. Superficially, the patients were unaffected, but careful experiments in cognition revealed unexpected deficits. One such experiment involved showing different images to the right visual field and the left visual field. While usually merged in the brain, due to the lack of connection via the corpus collosum, only the respective hemispheres were aware of the images. In this way, light was shed on how the different hemispheres process information. In one experiment, relevant to this discussion of how we create models in daily life:
[A] man’s left hemisphere saw a chicken claw; his right saw a snow scene. Afterward, the man chose the most appropriate matches from an array of pictures visible to both hemispheres. He chose a chicken to go with the claw, and a shovel to go with the snow. So far, so good.
But then Dr. Gazzaniga asked him why he chose those items — and struck gold. The man had a ready answer for one choice: The chicken goes with the claw. His left hemisphere had seen the claw, after all. Yet it had not seen the picture of the snow, only the shovel. Looking down at the picture of the shovel, the man said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”
The left hemisphere was just concocting an explanation, Dr. Gazzaniga said. In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, he and others showed that the pattern was consistent: The left hemisphere takes what information it has and delivers a coherent tale to conscious awareness. It happens continually in daily life, and most everyone has caught himself or herself in the act – overhearing a fragment of gossip, for instance, filling in the blanks with assumptions.
The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration.” 3
The so called “left brain” narrator gives coherence to our experience. It is our “model maker”. However, as the split brain research has shown, the narrator’s job is to give coherence even at the expense of truth. It just makes things up in order to make a sensible story. Maybe it does it all the time.
In any event, the key insight here for me, is that reality is neither “out there”, external and objective, nor “in here”, subjective and created. Reality is partially created and partially independent of us. Once we see this and see that our models may be flawed, we have the capacity to consciously work with the model and improve it, change it, transform it, beginning by making it more conscious and chosen. Psychotherapy, at least in part, capitalizes on this insight.
I would say that the inner work of spiritual unfolding, the fruit of various meditation and other ascetic exercises along with the efforts to put those insights into practice is, in general, model building. It is to live closer and with more in harmony with “reality” as we discover it, or as it discovers us. It is one of the places where the path of discovery via science and the path of “unfolding” via Cafh overlap.
In what ways can we improve our model? I think that one of the most basic considerations here is what is the goal of our model? What do we want from it? Do we want it to help us grow wealthy? Do we want it to help us get more powerful? Do we want to improve out status or become more attractive? Do we want to closer to “reality” in some less self centered way? The goal of our model, which could be called our intention, is not always or even often, conscious. Since each model will capture only certain aspects of the “way things are” and which aspects, and how they are related is different in each model, work with intention and its ramifications is central to the process of spiritual unfolding. This work includes honestly looking at my intentions, often unconscious or buried beneath layers of rationalizations and defenses. Seeing and understanding intentions makes choice of intentions possible and intentions are the seed of all our actions.
Culture provides us with most of our models and culture especially includes narratives that we either accept or reject. The rejections form a counter cultural narrative. It is hard to go beyond acceptance or rejection unless we are able to see that what we take as “reality” is dependent on our narrative, our particular way of giving order and meaning to experience: our model. The insight here is that our view of reality is simply a model of it. This insight, however, changes everything. It allows us to see our own experience with flexibility. This flexibility leaves open the possibility of expanding the model, including more of reality by seeing in a different way.
Breaking the hold of the narrative and the way it filters experience, finding a new narrative or living outside the narrative are ways to look at the meditation process. Inner silence, stopping, quieting, various body exercises (i.e. yoga) are tools to shake things up. So is travel, reading… almost anything done in an open way can do this. Serious illness often does it. It is less the experience itself than our inner attitude that makes an experience transformative, expansive.
Openness, thus, is the attitude that allows the narrative not to become a dogma, a closed story that I will live within rather than see as my model. If I feel “I know” then the story I have built up about the ways things are is fixed. If I accept that I am not certain, that I may not know, then I am in a different mode of experiencing. It is sometimes a painful or a vulnerable state to be in, but there are degrees of this. One of the hallmarks of great scientists is awareness of what is not really known in their field. This leads to questions. This attitude of not knowing is the opposite of ignorance. Seeing the limits of knowledge and asking penetrating questions are modes common to both science and spiritual unfolding.
Model making or creating narratives is a mostly unconscious activity and most often unquestioned. If our minds are like computer programs, we are only working with those that come ready to use. We don’t go deeper into the way the programs, written by others, are affecting our thoughts and feelings. If we go deeper, we see all kinds of assumptions, taken for granted falsehoods and half truths go into our narratives. I have thought, “This is the way things are”. If I can learn to question them, a whole world of possibilities opens up. The food I thought was terrible may now may actually be delicious and the person who I could not stand looks is seen in a wholly different light. Going deeper is one way to look at the meditation process. It is a process whereby one looks at the way one sees, thinks and feels from a distance. Not necessarily 30,000 feet away, but just far enough away that the identification is broken.
“One of the more durable generalizations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy since words are processed serially, while pictures are taken in all at once… if it is true, the importance of this distinction is hard to over – estimate… It goes to the core of how we understand our world, even ourselves…”
“Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world.” 4
Reading the introduction to The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, I have a minor epiphany. It is more of a clarification; a seeing very clearly, of some things I have long experienced but never quite was able to put into words.
I see that much of my inner work has involved expanding the context in which I live, act, feel and think. It is the work of trying to see and experience events, people not in isolation but as parts of the whole. It is a movement of inclusion – including other people’s perspectives, the natural environment, and the cosmos, for example, into my awareness. In McGilchrists’s words, it is to attend to the Gestalt, the whole. Seeing with a less ego centered view, many meditations are acts of seeing “with new eyes.” This kind of work is also a kind of play – a breaking free of the ego’s default narrative wherein I am the central character and all others play supporting roles.
The basic meditation exercise that of Cafh includes an imaginative picture which is a right brain oriented heuristic. If I put attention on my relationships rather than simply on my self new horizons of understanding arise. Picturing myself as a part of the whole, in various concrete and specific ways can change my context, especially if I use real aspects of daily life. This is the kind of model of expansion that I have learned through meditation exercises and try to apply to life. Of course, the default ego centered narrative can be strong. Self defensive emotions can win out and one wonders if it worth the effort. However, I continuously find in myself the spirit of the scientist searching for truth, seeking a more unvarnished view of Reality.
Perhaps the most important discovery of the Copernican model was not that the earth moves about the sun, but that the apparent movement of the sun was really due to our own movement on earth. We had to learn to factor in that the observer as moving and not still as it felt to us. Common sense didn’t tell us this. It required very careful observations, measurements and imagination along with the courage to “think outside the box”, to make the leap.
The parallel to spiritual unfolding is that that our own inner state is a major factor in our model of the world outside of us. This is a very basic and well known insight. Spiritual unfolding especially includes seeing that state and working with it rather than being trapped in it. It is possible to “project” less and be more in touch with the realities of life. Including a deeper, richer and more expansive context changes meaning and it is in the realm of meaning that spirituality dwells. The work of spiritual unfold includes this simple idea and systematically applying it to daily life.
- Humans have been around in our current form for the past 50 or 100,000 years, and modern science has been around 500 years – less that 1% of our existence!
- Ten Words of Spiritual Unfolding – “Remembering and Understanding”. P 11. http://www.cafh.org/english/teachings/The%20Ten%20Words%20of%20Spiritual%20Unfolding.pdf
- From NY Times – 10-31-11: Benedict Carey: Profiles in Science | Michael S. Gazzaniga, Decoding the Brain’s Cacophony
- Iain McGilchrist, “The Master and His Emissary”