The “Science” of meditation

You may wonder “what is meditation really?”. Or perhaps you have a precached notion of meditation as something only hippies and monks do, a religious ritual at best. But really there is much more.

In the broadest sense, it is the “science” of the mind.

First I’m going to shadow your definition of “science” with mine, so that there is no confusion. Hopefully it is sufficiently close to yours so that you can glean some benefit from the discussion. By “science”, I mean the acquisition of knowledge about the “outside” world, through logic (truth preserving transformations) and observation, the prediction of future observations given past observations. I make this distinction because the application of “science” directly to the mind gets a bit tricky.

The universe simulates quantum mechanics at some scale, chemistry at a larger scale, Newtonian physics at a still larger scale, general relativity, etc. None of these scientific frameworks are true, but they are convenient abstractions for predicting future observations from past observations to some degree of accuracy. We know that they are not true because there are “leaks” in the abstraction, some things that don’t fit. QM cannot currently reconcile with GR, so we know we must jump to a “larger” theory to unify them. What if at some point we find no leaks? Does this mean we now know what is “true”? Well not necessarily. The universe could be a perfect simulation in a larger universe, a dream in the mind of a god, a quantum fluctuation that exists only for an instant with our memories an illusion.


How can we distinguish these possibilities? There is no way, so long as there is no observable difference. For this reason I suggest that my definition of “science” is a useful one.

This shift in perspective begs a question: If we can’t really say anything about what’s true “out there”, but can only make statements about observations, what exactly is an observation?! It seems obvious that we need to look deeper inside the mind, in the realm of sensory perception to answer this question. Normally in science we make some basic assumptions, like “objective reality exists”. This is generally a nice assumption to make. But in doing so we make some implicit assumptions that our senses relay accurate information and are not subject to introspection. This leads to problems like the above, where you can make nonsense statements about indistinguishable realities.

So observations are kind of like senses? Well, “sense” is rather arbitrary (in addition to the 5 there’s balance, proprioception, hunger, bladder fullness, etc. depending on how liberal you want to be), but more importantly it relies on assumptions of the outside world. For you, the observer, what does a sense mean? Consider all the preprocessing the retina does before it forwards the image to the rest of the brain. You would still call sight a “sense” yes? Then I suggest that, to the observer, a sense is just a nerve module feeding data that the brain views as “primitive”. So anything that “feels different” is a different sense. Pain, tickle, pressure, etc. are all different senses under this definition!

If we take this notion to it’s logical conclusion, we see also that emotions are senses too. Though it acts on a much larger scale, an emotion is just a preprocessing of your general state to give a heuristic on how to think. It seems weird at first to think this way, but we’ve known it all along. This is why we “feel” sad, or “feel” happy, the same way we “feel” the wind through our hair.

So now it seems clear “Yes, of course we should study our senses if we want to know anything about our relation to this world!”. But there’s a big problem which has prevented “meditative sciences” from becoming “real sciences”, and that’s reproducibility. The scientific method is in many ways the optimal tool for conducting “science” on the natural world. One of the most fundamental and useful assumptions of science are that the laws of nature are the same everywhere, so if we set up two comparable experiments in two comparable places, we should get comparable results. But when we try to apply this to meditation, it all comes crashing down. To the pure observer, there is no “everywhere”, there is only “here” and “now”. We cannot take for granted “elsewhere” or even our past; consider that memories too are a sense, replaying input through the same channels it came in the first time.

It may seem a wonder that with these limitations we could say anything useful at all! Is this a fundamental limitation? Well, yes and no. We’ve already accepted a far greater weakness, that no logic system can prove it’s own consistency. Essentially (with much abuse of rigor), we can never “prove” anything at all, at least by most people’s definition of “prove”. But incompleteness doesn’t stop us from pushing forward to find “truth”,  and neither should this. It is convenient to assume that “math works”, if we can just get math right, and so too it is convenient to assume that our senses betray some greater external reality, if we can just interpret them correctly.There’s a reason that most philosophers disregard solipsism, because it’s mostly useless! But considering it seriously prevents one common epistemic trap. If you can’t experientially distinguish between one possible reality and another, it is meaningless to consider which is “real”. But we generalize “experience” from the typical all or nothing definition, so we really mean It is not meaningful to distinguish between two models that give identical predictions of future experience. Essentially we’ve weakened “reality” to “convenient model”, and the practical results becomes obvious.

But this is all philosophical exploration, which has been reinvented many times over. The  real, practical reason that meditation has never been seriously considered is still reproducability. The mind is in constant flux. You are continuously transforming, never the same person at two points in time. Clearly this wreaks havoc on reproducability! How can you ever repeat an experiment if you already expect a result? “All the theorems assume that how you think doesn’t affect reality apart from your actual actions”. But in meditation, that is exactly what you’re doing! Meditation is essentially conscious control of the placebo effect! Normally we account for placebo through replication and controls. But what does a meditation control look like? You must always be thinking something! There is no “null thought” by which to compare, or rather, the default is specific to each person. If we had a battalion of identical personalities, this may be possible. As crazy as it sounds, I expect this to be within the reach of science.

Another problem is that we cannot directly share our experiences in a reliable way. One person says “If you do A, you will feel X”, and another asks “Great! What is X like”, and the original replies “I cannot tell you, you must experience it yourself”. This is actually not so much a problem, what we’re doing here is describing an experiment that will lead to observation X; this is the best we can do when language fails to encode all of our experience. The real difficulty is in determining “feeling equality”. So you’ve done A, but how do you know the X’ you feel is the same as the master’s X? If we have good reason to believe that consciousness is embedded in the physical world (we do), then we can eventually tie a neuronal activity profile to each feeling (or an equivalence class of such profiles, as the case more likely will be).

Meditation makes no assumptions of an external world, it is the pure observation of our existence. Because our senses are the most primitive thing we can observe, meditation requires no tools, no prior knowledge of the world, and no assumptions. It is the study of the “self”, at the purest level. Bridging between this knowledge of the “self” and our understanding of scientific reality requires technical advances that are not available yet, but this does not mean it should be relegated to philosophy alone. Science presses forwards, slowly consuming the domains of philosophy and religion into the sphere of applicable knowledge. We need first only recognize that it is applicable!