Ways of Scientific Knowing

Or Hey, Hey We’re Maybe Not the Monkees

Few would argue that science is, with certain exceptions, the prevailing lens through which the modern Western world views the universe. It’s not that religious faith doesn’t continue to be a guiding paradigm for many. But even for believers, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and so on are readily accepted methods of explaining the mechanics of the physical world, the solar system and so on.

But for all its justly celebrated success, there are limits to what science can explain. Science as we conventionally define it, anyway. Consider the origin of the universe. The big bang theory of the cosmos posits its origin in what’s referred to as a singularity. Astrophysics has continued on, then, inquiring as to where the singularity itself came from. Some in the field have suggested it originated in a black hole. But whether that proves to be true or not we can see that whatever the ultimate, originating phenomenon is considered to be — at any phase of scientific history — it will always leave us with the question, “what caused that?”. It’s similar to Zeno’s famous paradox where Achilles never catches the tortoise. The linear pursuit cosmological science conducts continues on infinitely — advancing our knowledge, no doubt — but never reaching an ultimate answer.

Consider this mystery as well: although it’s been the subject of considerable research by evolutionary biologists, the origin of life on our planet has never been firmly established. The ongoing work centers on hypotheses like the gradual evolution of certain chemicals aided by energy from the sun or lightening strikes, culminating in the first living organisms. But strictly speaking, the genesis of life on Earth can’t yet be said to be definitively known.

And so I pose the question: Is it possible these answers have eluded us because we’re using the wrong tool?

That is, is it possible that — beyond the traditional practice of rational, linear inquiry as expressed in what we know as the scientific method — there are other modes of scientific discovery which could provide answers to these essential questions? And if so, could these other approaches be used more broadly by everyone to solve the problems and address the issues of everyday life?

Let’s explore this by looking at another of science’s unresolved questions: the theory of evolution.

First, I grew up learning that evolution was not really a theory but a fact. A few details might require additional sorting out but, essentially, the idea of the creation of species via random genetic change and natural selection was as good as settled. Second, I also grew up learning that there were only two ways of looking at the question: we know them as evolution and creationism. Later, I was very surprised to discover that evolutionary theory is not a certainty. And that the commonly accepted conceptual framework of evolution versus creationism is a false dichotomy.

To be very clear: I am not a creationist. At all. I regard the genesis creation account as religious allegory, although a very engaging one. My motivations for looking at the unresolved question (and it is unresolved) of the mechanism of species origin is not to advocate for creationism in any way. Instead it is to, first, call attention to the admissions of respected scientists and science writers as to the inadequacies of evolutionary theory. And then to return to my questions above regarding the existence of another mode of scientific inquiry which could resolve this and other enduring scientific problems — and be used by the general population as well.

In his fine book Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, Native American scholar Vine Deloria Jr. lays out the shortcomings of both the evolutionist and creationist perspectives. (As I said, I consider the biblical account of creation to be allegorical and have no need to dwell on it further.) Early on in his text, Deloria quotes respected paleontologist Niles Eldredge to illustrate how the traditional idea of gradual evolutionary change is unsubstantiated:

“We have proffered a collective tacit acceptance of the story of gradual adaptive change, a story that strengthened and became even more entrenched as the synthesis took hold. We paleontologists have said that the history of life supports that interpretation, all the while really knowing that it does not.” — Niles Eldredge, Time Frames

Perhaps, like me, you were startled to see a prominent scientist make such a statement — although Eldredge’s admission is only that the traditional view of evolutionary gradualism is dubious. And this is because the fossil record shows that species, once in existence, don’t significantly change. Based on that stasis, Eldredge and fellow paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould framed a new model of evolution called punctuated equilibrium:

“Punctuated equilibrium still strikes me as an exceedingly simple idea: at base it says that once a species evolves, it will usually not undergo great change as it continues its existence — contrary to prevailing expectation that indeed does go back to Darwin (and even beyond).” — Eldredge, Time Frames

But does the punctuated equilibrium model actually prove the evolutionary thesis of species origination through random genetic change any better than the earlier gradualist perspective? In order to do that, it would have to explain not just why a particular species doesn’t change, but how — given this model — it came into being in the first place. Because, according to punctuated equilibrium, its parent species should have demonstrated the same lack of change. Yet, this newer evolutionary model still posits the idea that the parent species evolved to create the new one. That is, it retains the base notion that species come into being from random genetic changes. The problem, even for punctuated equilibrium, remains that the fossil record reveals that extant species don’t, in fact, significantly change.

To illustrate, Deloria references a study by paleontologists Conrad Labandeira and John Sepkoski, Jr.:

“Of 1,293 fossil insect families, 84 percent of the insects living in prehistoric times are living today.” — Harold Booher, Origins, Icons, and Illusions, citing a study by Labandeira (Smithsonian Institution) and Sepkoski, Jr. (University of Chicago).

And he also offers this list of species which have remained essentially static:

“Over a longer span, ants preserved in amber 25 million years old look very much like those of today; some species are difficult to distinguish from modern descendants. …Lungfish go back 350 million years, and horseshoe crabs (Limulus) have changed little, at least in their skeleton, for that time or longer. Some brachiopods (Lingula) are apparently unchanged, at least in their shells, for 450 million years. Other holdouts of bygone ages include crocodiles, some turtles, and a variety of bony fish and sharks. A number of plants, such as ginkgoes, cycads, horsetails, and club mosses, are at least 100 million years old.” — Robert Wesson, Beyond Natural Selection

Drawing attention to other shortcomings in evolutionary theory, Deloria cites this principle:

“If an animal is dull in color it is claimed that it survived because of camouflage. On the other hand, if the animal is brightly colored, its survival is attributed to increased sexual attractiveness or that the color served as a warning to enemies.” — Donald E. Tyler, Originations of Life

And then he asks: “How do evolutionists choose which of these competing explanations represents evolution? There is no good answer except the personal preference of the scientist.”

Deloria points out this broad criticism of natural selection, as well:

“As a theory, natural selection makes no unique predictions but instead is used retrospectively to explain every outcome; and a theory that explains everything in this way explains nothing.” — Richard Milton, The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism

And he comes to this conclusion: “After more than a century of searching for irrefutable proof of evolution, the cupboard is as bare as it was when Darwin first advanced his ideas.”

But Vine Deloria’s intentions are not solely to find fault. His purpose is to propose that a change of orientation is needed to solve these evolutionary problems: “The criticisms of these thinkers, taken together, offer irresistible arguments and considerable evidence to support the idea that we need a new paradigm with which to deal honestly with the fossil data.”

Which leads me back to my original question: are there other modes of scientific discovery which could be brought to bear to solve these problems in evolutionary biology and other areas of science?

I think the answer is hidden in plain sight. Deloria does as well. He references the influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn to show that another way of operating, parallel to the traditional scientific method, has been employed by some scientists all along:

“Scientists then often speak of the ‘scales falling from the eyes’ or of the ‘lightening flash’ that ‘illuminates’ a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution.”

And Deloria cites Kuhn’s observation that “On other occasions, the relevant illumination comes in sleep.”

He quotes English philosopher David Foster to state the point clearly:

“the great breakthroughs in science were almost all of a mystical nature in which an emotion of ‘problem solved’ preceded the solution in Queen’s English or mathematical symbols.” — David Foster, The Philosophical Scientists

The breakthroughs Foster means, in physics in particular, are these:

“Planck and quantum theory
 Einstein and relativity theory
 De Broglie and matter-wave equivalence
 Schrodinger and wave mechanics
 Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle
 Pauli and the exclusion principle”

And Deloria points out Foster’s observation: “Not one of these was reasonable or common-sense, but all were true and they worked. They were the result of ‘inspiration.’”

In other words, as Deloria says, “While the discoveries of modern physics, the most successful of our physical sciences, may be described using complex geometries and mathematics, the source of many important and fundamental theories in physics is mysticism.”

I was shocked to learn that this reality extends even to Descartes. As Deloria puts it, citing biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s article “Is the Universe Alive?” in The Teilhard Review:

“We can trace even the Cartesian mind/matter separation to a mystical experience. On St. Martin’s Day in 1619, Rene Descartes had a vision of a mechanical world that became the basis for his philosophy. He believed it had been ‘channeled’ (as we would say today) by the Angel of Truth, and he undertook a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Virgin at Loretto two years later as a means of giving thanks for the insight.”

So our question about the possible alternate mode of scientific inquiry is answered. A simple assessment of the facts reveals that we owe numerous landmark scientific discoveries to the mystical intuitions of prominent scientists — and not solely to their training or rational genius.

So where, then, does this leave a scientist looking to plumb their mystical intuition in the service of scientific discovery? And just as well, where does it leave the rest of us? Is this mystical approach teachable? Or is it accidental? Can it be cultivated and put to use as a way of addressing either the questions of science or the challenges of our personal lives?

An observation (frequently cited in a few variations) from Zen Buddhist teacher Richard Baker Roshi proposes that “Enlightenment is an accident, but [spiritual] practice makes you accident prone.” And in this, I think we have, at least, a reasonable point of departure. Various types of meditative practice or similar spiritual disciplines like chanting, the martial arts, yoga or numerous other techniques have helped millions of people to experience an increased sense of internal stillness. A kind of calming of the “interior monologue” of conscious thought which leaves something like a blank canvas upon which intuitive insights can appear. And interestingly, this meditative state of mind isn’t unfamiliar to us. Who hasn’t had the solution to a problem pop suddenly into mind in the shower or during the focused quiet of exercise or especially in the stillness of nature? But these moments are random. How much better if we could cultivate this state of receptivity?

It may seem strange to approach the work of science through spiritual practices of this kind. But the successes of the scientists listed above, gained through mystic intuition, speak volumes. So given this understanding why wouldn’t science — and the rest of us as well — explore these practices which foster the blank canvas where these insights can show themselves?

Vine Deloria, Jr.