The struggle to explain and discover reality
“Although mystics report that this state of ultimate being cannot be understood through reason, or even rationally described, that hasn’t stopped legions from trying” (Newberg 169). With the knowledge that they are not discovering the direct meaning and feeling of meditation, scientists examine physical evidence of such an experience. The goal of these scientists is not to demean transcendent experience, but to establish an observable connection between the things that cannot be fully explained and the most practical method of understanding life: scientific observation and proof of a theory.
Newberg is not in any way attempting to lessen the significance of spiritual experiences. Instead, he is trying to combine science and religion as two separate arts of obtaining a higher understanding of truth, by presenting the correlation between meditation and its very real physical effects on the brain. Another consideration involving the effectiveness of using science to theorize about transcendental experience involves the difference it would make if interpreting subjective experiences was entirely neglected.
Humans are accustomed to searching for correlations between their own experiences and the experiences of others. For this reason, they must attempt to find substantial examples regarding their own experiences so that they can be compared to experiences explained in similar terms. Because by definition, transcendence goes beyond any ability to be fully described, it is impossible to succeed in this feat without coming across conflicts involving the difficulty of correlating observable fact with indescribable experience.
Science attempts to make this effort more manageable on a larger scale. Scientific experimentation not only allows us to further understand transcendental experiences through human nature, but it also enables us to differentiate genuine experience and counterfeit insistence relating to the transcendence of material existence. If all subjective experiences were assumed valid there would be great disorder in the world. Humans would be at a loss as to which experiences were positive, negative, authentic, or fraud.
In the investigation of these otherwise impossible-to-prove incidents, scientists are aiding the world in creating an order to life. Newberg effectively states this concern when he writes, “either spiritual experience is nothing more than a neurological construct created by and contained within the brain, or the state of absolute union that the mystics describe does in fact exist and the mind has developed the capability to perceive it” (169).
In his efforts to learn the true answer to this deliberation, Newberg is using science to test out the theory that spiritual experience is in fact authentic. However, it is possible for science to stray too far in its quest to explain aspects of existence. For instance, in his article, Newberg attempts to defend transcendental experiences during meditation using his scientific proof that it does in fact alter brain activity in a way that demonstrates the overall effects of meditation as far as science can reach them.
This effort may also be undermining meditation’s significance as a separate reality from the one we perceive in the physical world. As Cobb states, “While the materialist doctrine has enabled vast advances in our understanding of the objective world, it has had some unfortunate consequences for our ability to experience spiritual wholeness. In a world where objective matter is supreme, the subjective, sacred dimension has little role to play. The result has been a trivialization of sacred experience.
We in the West have relegated theology to the back halls of academia and to our time in churches and temples. And yet, many of us continue to have experiences that we can make sense of only in theological terms” (Cobb 59). This quotation suggests that we have been ignoring spirituality in the race for technological and scientific advancement. Instead of utilizing our extensive abilities only as tools to further worldly knowledge, maybe we ought to exert more of our energy towards sacred experience itself.
Cobb continues to explain the importance of spirituality by insisting that “[c]ommon sense tells us… that we do not inhabit a universe wholly determined by physics, chemistry, and biology, and that the divine is a fundamental feature of reality” (Cobb 59). This is a truth that is detrimental to our natural predilection to live wholeheartedly when it is discarded. In addition to living in the material world, and experiencing physical and observable properties of existence, we should not deem transcendence a negligible aspect of life.
Although humans must rely on their physical senses to perceive the world and participate in its material possibilities, it is counterproductive to ignore the importance of spiritual wholeness as a separate entity from science. Transcendence should be regarded as its own untainted aspect of existence unmarked by oversimplification of its true form. Newberg describes meditation as an act that other scientists would as professionals judge “too personal and speculative to signify anything concrete in the physical world” (162).
The problem with this view is not in the words themselves. In fact, it is perfectly correct to state that meditation is not an act that can possess any real direct meaning to the world that we see. It is of another world – the spiritual world. However, that does not mean it is any less meaningful, simply that it is not useful in understanding physics. The above quotation can in addition be applied to the idea that not only can transcendent experience not be directly applied to the physical world, but it should not be applied in that way.
The connection between meditation and physics should end where the correlation between transcendent experiences can be observed as valid and existent by scientific machinery. No further scientific interpretation can be successfully used to understand the true essence of meditation. It seems as though the line between transcendence and science should exist in the place where scientific experimentation is useful in its purpose of explaining experiences with a logical basis, but does not demean the separate fundamental nature of spiritual experience.
As long as science is able to use its skills to explain observable connections between scientific progress and emergence of the “true self” without establishing an overriding importance as a reality, both can be used together as a more complete understanding of existence.
Works Cited: Cobb, Jennifer J. “Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. ” Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Random House, 1998. Newberg, Andrew, M. D. , Eugene d’Aquili, M. D. , Ph. C. , and Vince Rause.
“A Photography of God? ” and “Realer than Real. ” Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York, Ballantine, 2001. 1-10, 142-156; notes 173-77. Vaitl, Dieter; Birbaumer, Niels; Gruzelier, John; Jamieson, Graham A. ; Kotchoubey, Boris; Ki?? bler, Andrea; Lehmann, Dietrich; Miltner, Wolfgang H. R. ; Ott, Ulrich; Pi?? tz, Peter; Sammer, Gebhard; Strauch, Inge; Strehl, Ute; Wackermann, Jiri; Weiss, Thomas. “States of Drowsiness. ” Psychobiology of Altered States of Consciousness. Ovid Technologies, Inc. , 2004.