This article is about the purpose of meditation as it may be understood from the point of view of western rationality. This isn’t intended as a light reading introduction to meditation but as an exploration of some of the understandings and assumptions underlying this prevailing rational perspective, with a view to making the deeper function of meditation philosophically comprehensible in modern western terms.
In any inquiry we have to take a close look at some of the terms and concepts involved and in this case experience, truth, reality, fact, knowledge, belief, subjectivity, objectivity, consciousness and intelligence are explored.
Concepts and language
It seems that direct experience is the root of knowledge and conceptualization is the tool we use for the exploration and communication thereof. Concepts are the abstract mental labels of association that we use to establish and manipulate links between experiences both of a direct sensory and a more abstract indirect form. These labels are elements of and are inextricable from language. So the whole field of conception is a relative, collectively shared one, as is language itself, though all operations of interpretation and manipulation are carried out in individual minds. Direct experience is the root or touch-stone of conceptual systems, in so far as the sense of validity which we constantly use to measure veracity at all stages of abstraction is derived from concepts formed at the most immediate proximity to direct experience, e.g. Chair, table, person, and house stretched into areas such as home, livelihood or economy. This is obvious enough but not always so obvious is that the entire field of conceptualization is equally abstract. In the same way that an architect’s blueprints are abstract no matter how accurately or inaccurately they portray ‘reality’. In other words no matter how gross or subtle the subject matter, ‘reality’ is always dimensionally out of reach of the label. An analogy of this may be that of a photograph being a two dimensional view of three dimensional reality, always portraying an image from a particular viewpoint and however accurate a representation it may be from that viewpoint, perspective is frozen in context and other perspectives are not apparent.
Language as a collectively developed map of the conceptual world is very informative and full of clues about its own parameters, boundaries and limitations when viewed with an understanding of its relative nature. For example interpreted from this perspective, the term ‘absolute’ means ‘not relative’ as absolute and relative are simply conceptual opposites. This also applies to ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’, so infinite seen like this means something like ‘not subject to measurement of any kind conceptually’, rather than an unending linear progression towards some unfathomable boundary, which only exists within a pre-constructed conceptual space. Infinity therefore means ‘unmeasured’ and ‘eternity’ means ‘unmeasured in time’.
Knowledge, reason and fact
The word ‘reason’ in its main modern western meaning has to do with the application of logic to events to establish ‘truths’ or ‘facts’. In science this is reinforced by the use of tight experimental protocols to produce results as free as possible from ambiguity and verifiable by peer review. Philosophically this approach is described as being ‘objective’ in character because it attempts to establish theory and understanding of principles that, as closely as possible, reflect an ‘actuality’ or ‘reality’ that exists independently of any particular observer. The well known arch-enemy of ‘objectivity’ is of course ‘subjectivity’ i.e. relying on or being over-influenced by one’s own personal view or interpretation of events.
It seems that our personal view of reality is constantly being checked in our flow of consciousness against our sense of collective agreement about it; e.g. I may never have been to Australia but I am certain beyond doubt that it exists because of my contact with many people who have been there. So while much of my view of reality is relatively directly supported by direct experience there is a hierarchy of inferred truth constructed within my extended view, derived from shared collective experience and stored conceptually. This applies to all areas of abstract ‘knowledge’. What this implies is that what we mean by ‘objective’ is really collective agreement on the interpretation of experience, for example we can easily agree on a particular item being a chair or table or house or whatever because these are so much part of our common experience that we forget that the particular concept or mental label was originally learned and is an agreed abstraction constantly reinforced by direct experience. However the concept remains abstract and the apparent inseparability of the thing and its label is an illusion of perception. The concept is acquired and shared through language. Going a little further, the ideas of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are themselves based on the a-priori perception that there is a separation between viewers and viewed, while in actuality the entire experience exists within the perception of the viewer. So in actuality there is no separate external world except within the cognitive distinction of the viewer. This implies that in fact only subjective experience exists. But to follow this reasoning through, as language is only a relative construct, it means that neither subject nor object exist as such – they are a perceptual illusion expressed as concepts, produced by that evolved tool which we use to manipulate our environment, conceptual thought.
A core component of this instrument of conceptual thought is the sense of truth or validity which we constantly apply to abstract information. We don’t do this consciously with everyday things because the sense of ‘reality’ or ‘existence’ of direct experience is an intrinsic quality of it and habitual usage carries this over to the associated primary concepts. In abstract thought this ‘checking for validity’ or discrimination of truthfulness is actively directed into all mental constructs, to some degree, like a surveyor checking the soundness of building work in progress and is rooted in the perceived validity of primary concepts. Incidentally this applies to mathematics as well as all other conceptual fields of reference.
The practical significance of all this is that ‘objectivity’ is really collective agreement on the truth of a conceptual interpretation of an experience or event.
Interestingly there is always some degree of probability, greater or lesser, factored into evaluation of a truth. Without that there could only be ignorance or certainty, no work in progress. Further experience may reinforce or reduce the degree of certainty. Knowledge is the concept used to indicate a high degree of certainty about the parts and totality of this body of information, which must necessarily remain open and flexible to accommodate new input.
Science, values and evolution
Based on the above it could be suggested that the mental world we inhabit is mainly an abstract one, being a conceptual environment constructed and amended in a dynamically evolving way, through the medium of language. The idea of evolution used here is rooted in, and not essentially dissimilar to the biological notion; locally developed world views interact with others through competition and absorption to generate variations, and a degree of ‘survival of the fittest’ processing is also at work here, whereby different qualities and attributes may suit different cultures at different times, and the more effective predominate. Of course the process is much more rapid than in the biological sphere and has no direct genetic consequences though it certainly does have effects on the biological environment. It might be thought of as evolution of software as distinct from biological hardware. Language is the medium of this process and as such it is a collective one, as discussed earlier. However the digestion and transformation of ideas takes place in the individual mind.
The fabric or pattern of these world views, woven through individual and collective experience and validation, operates in different areas of our understanding. For example, one area might be considered to include human relationship, family, social mores etc. extending to the more metaphysical considerations of human aspiration expressed in philosophy and religion, i.e. the world of values.
While another is the area of investigation of the workings of the physical world; there are no doubt others that could be defined but these are the relevant areas for the purposes of this discussion. These two areas develop to some degree independently but do influence each other because they form part of each others’ environment, e.g. the application of scientific knowledge through technologies greatly affects the physical environment in which society operates and the practical aspects of global social interaction. Conversely, prevailing mores and values influence to some degree the area and application of scientific exploration. Extending the comparison with biological evolution one can observe that over relatively long periods of time nature tends to conserve and refine the most useful aspects of a culture while not necessarily eliminating less useful ones completely. This happens through the interaction of individual and collective evaluation discussed. Societies/cultures gather a cumulative heritage of experience and adaptation which express the unconscious assumptions of its members shared through language. Which brings us to the idea of ‘belief’or what we ‘consider to be true’.
Interestingly, belief seems to mean different things when in the context of science or social values. In science belief is ideally based on tried and tested knowledge. One should only believe what has been tried, tested and evaluated as objectively true according to the prevailing collectively approved scientific protocols. With independent individual thought and exploration highly valued subject to peer review. Although it may be worth noting that values appreciated within the discipline of science participate as part of our collective value system and are subject to similar pressures of value, belief, development and evolution. This leaves the problem that science can only explore a small fraction of reality so if one were fully committed to exercise of objectivity one couldn’t believe anything that had not been rigorously tested, leaving most of one’s interpretation of reality unbelievable. Plainly many presumptions precede the exploration. On the other hand where social values are concerned, beliefs are more like socially acquired attitudes communicated and absorbed, as it were, osmotically. These are not weighed on a rational scale per se but on a scale of social importance gathered through generations of collective experience. This is also based on a principle of ‘tried and tested’ but the frame of reference for such knowledge is collectively evolved of morality or cohesive social behavior rather than directly reasoned. Does one regard the value of life as a high priority? If one does, this is a belief but not based on the same grounding as believing that the earth revolves round the sun although in practice both are received knowledge for most people rather than directly discriminated.
It could be considered that what we refer to as ‘beliefs’ in both areas, science and social values, are presumptions, albeit in different frames of reference, upon which other enquiry may be based but which themselves may not be subject to close scrutiny unless there is pressure for re-evaluation that draws attention to them which can and does result in paradigm shifts in either area.
While knowledge and understanding socially and scientifically proceed on a collective basis, individual insight provides the focal point of change/progress in both areas. e.g. in the sciences we recognize people like Pythagoras, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein who have contributed major refinements and adjustments to the collective understanding of physical reality. On the social side we have innumerable figures who have enriched the world of social and ethical realities and the value systems which underpin world cultures, such as Socrates, Plato, Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Mohammed, Abraham and in more recent times Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela and in all countless others.
It may be considered that the significance of these individuals lay in the strength of their appeal to deep aspirational desires in the collective attention in their cultures at their time and they, as individuals, acted as focal points in the resolution of these. This can be regarded as part of the evolutionary development of society and culture in the areas of ethics and values. These areas include what we categorize as religion, philosophy and politics, although these don’t really exist separately and are interwoven in the fabric of society.
When we talk about truth in these areas really we are talking about the truth of values which have evolved in the collective attention of humanity. Such a quality of truth plainly is not amenable to the criteria which are used in exploring the ‘objective’ world. The notion of ‘objective reality’ can only be applied to the physical world as no concept can be regarded as existing physically; so values and mores, which don’t have physical co-relates can’t be objectively investigated, though they do result from the same essential mental processes of evaluation as the physical sciences, i.e. individual discrimination reflected in collectively accepted and evolving paradigms.
Individual insight and collective knowledge
From observations thus far you will see an recognition of the procedure of interplay of knowledge between individual and society. The individual mind is identified as the place where the digestion and transformation of knowledge takes place through what we call insight. Insight is an ability to recognize a deeper, more significant pattern or patterns of truth emerging from consideration of other patterns of knowledge, experience and theory.
In a way the individual doesn’t exist separately from the society or mental environment he shares with others. His entire conceptual world view from the furniture he uses to the abstract ideas he has from the grossest to the most subtle is shared with the world he inhabits, but with his own unique experiential perspective. The point at which all change and transformation takes place is in the individual consciousness through this phenomenon of insight. This process of transformation of knowledge through insight informs the collective body of society and contributes to its pool of knowledge, with the area of value knowledge forming the context for other kinds.
Values what are they and do they matter?
The word ‘value’ has old trading connotations and implies the relative importance we attach to things – we place greatest value on those things we regard as most important. In human affairs the term is used in a similar way in reference to qualities or attributes a society regards as important.
Values of specific kinds develop and are expressed in different societies in different ways; they evolve within the culture of the society as in integral part of its fabric, a process touched on earlier. This evolution also follows the pattern of individual/collective interaction, with individual discrimination at the root of insight driving the process and the collective body of society selecting and expressing (or suppressing) this insight. So values are to do with the reciprocal relations between individual and society, being referred to generally as virtues in the case of the individual and values in the case of society. For example, honesty, strength of character, tolerance, courage may be regarded as desirable virtues in an individual while justice, human rights, social inclusiveness are examples of social values. Plainly these are two sides of the same coin; individual virtues reflect social values.
These values are developed and expressed over long periods of time as a collective body of knowledge and there is a high degree of inertia associated with them. In other words the collective side of the relationship weighs heavily against the individual’s side. This seems reasonable as the values have the function of providing protection and nourishment to the collective body, so for the most part the individual’s contribution is crucial but relatively small.
In modern times the great population and cultural shifts generated by major wars, the advent of relatively cheap and rapid world travel, and global communications, have encouraged cultural contact and exchange to a much greater degree than ever known hitherto. On one hand this has encouraged people to expand their world views and tolerance of others; on the other it has led to some insecurity and conflict of views. In the first case those of an enquiring nature who perhaps intuitively trust the underlying truth of values as inherent in human nature are prepared to open their minds to new viewpoints and gain improved understanding and value perspective; while in the other, distrust in the integrity of human nature and the challenge of new perspectives to their belief system, often makes them identify even more closely with their own historical, cultural philosophical and religious background.
Evolution, science, creationism and God
The word God is a concept. All concepts are relative and all conceptual meaning is relative. So there can be no conceptual meaning to the word ‘God’ that isn’t relative and charged with associations. The problem with the word is that people have their own particular associations with it. Now if I use the word ‘chair’ everyone who can speak the same language as me knows what I mean, at least as a particular category of item. The proximity of the concept to its function helps, so although the concept, like all concepts is abstract, its meaning is pretty unambiguous. However the concept ‘God’ is loaded with divergent associations with the consequence that people often have quite different interpretations of the same word. Linguistically the word is associated with unity and good and in linguistic origin probably meant something along the lines of the ‘Power of good’. Plainly the concept is one that has developed over time and there is plenty of scope for inquiry into its’ historical roots. For the purposes of this discussion there are particular points to observe. In modern times there is a tendency for people to find themselves engaged in debate, directly or implicitly about the subject of the existence or non-existence of God, without having any clear idea of the subject they are dealing with, whichever side of a fence they may regard themselves as standing on. This debate seems to take place largely in an intellectually barren terrain where the main, or at least loudest, protagonists assert their unassailable rightness without appearing to inspect their own assumptions too closely. So the argument degenerates to that of the existence or otherwise of an anthropomorphically conceived God. As far as this level of the debate is concerned my own view is that the root of the problem here is the anthropomorphism, whereby God is conceived of as being a mystical entity, something akin to a human being (man is made in God’s image and likeness) who exists somehow separately from the rest of the universe, who created and controls the world. As I see it this is the equivalent of ‘casting God in man’s image and likeness’ or a subtle kind of idolatry, as it were and I can understand why many would find this notion difficult to swallow. Essentially this describes the idea of God under discussion when we talk of ‘belief’ in God or ‘dis-belief’. Debate engaged at this level tends to produce a polarization of those who regard themselves as ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ or ‘atheists’.
Current debates about creationism vs. evolution science are relatively superficial as they take place in this distorted arena characterized by mutual suspicion and loathing on the part of the protagonists. The introduction of recently evolved value paradigms over the last couple of centuries under the auspices of ‘the Enlightenment’, arising as they did in a background of antipathy to prevailing religious orthodoxy, set the scene to some degree for a continuing ideological conflict of views. This still finds expression currently in the tension between science and religion, and is exemplified in the arguments between evolution and creationism.
Creationism is really an aspect of fundamentalism and is an intellectually narrow and regressive reaction to a perceived threat to social morality and a world view in which belief in an anthropomorphically conceived God is considered essential and central to the sustaining of human/social values, knowledge of right and wrong, morality etc. To the fundamentalist this threat seems implicit not only in evolution theory but also in the secular scientific outlook as a whole and the growing secularization and materialism of Western style social values. This applies to all current religious fundamentalisms of different religions.
Paradoxically, the rationalist reaction to this tends to reinforce the creationist position and its’ determination to resist the ‘demon’ of atheism. An actively atheistic view of the universe, reinforced ultimately by historic the abuses of religion, engages in battle on territory chosen by the enemy. Ultimately this is a battle between values occupying different conceptual paradigms that can achieve nothing. The value of secular objective rationality versus the value of moral integrity, rather than the value of truth.
Another view, more prevalent in the East, is that God represents the unfathomable, inconceivable, immeasurable, timeless, absolute reality that underlies our world of concepts. Many people who conceive of God through this approach have as much difficulty with an anthropomorphic view of God as do atheists, while at the same time finding a perspective on life much more satisfying than can be provided by reductionist cause and effect analysis such as that provided by science or objective philosophies. Again such an approach would appear to suffer from the contradiction inherent in the attempt to conceive of the inconceivable, but in practice this approach is supported by the practice of meditation designed to bring the conscious attention back to a state of thoughtless awareness, in which the subject-object illusion is dissolved. Such practice provides nourishment to the whole psyche by re-establishing the roots of self-identity rather than just satisfying the intellect.
It will be apparent I haven’t actually said a lot about the practice of meditation itself. There are many techniques described as being meditation. In practice most of these techniques provide access to or control of certain aspects the psyche usually out of conscious reach, and may result in a sense of greater relaxation or greater self-control. But there is some evidence to indicate that they are not by any means all the same, and that the kinds of effect can vary greatly. So care has to be advised in adopting a practice of meditation, that its origins are sound in order that it does bring about self-awakening and not self-hypnosis or some other result.. This topic will be approached elsewhere by me and other contributors.