© Ansuman Biswas
Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst
The South London Gallery
Ansuman Biswas performs an experiment / demonstration drawing on the image of Schrödinger's Cat, the famous paradox in quantum physics. The work arises from a comparative study of modern scientific methodology and the 2,500 year old Indian science of vipassana. It will last for ten days during which time the artist will remain sealed within a light and soundproof chamber. He will attempt to maintain continuous, detailed observation of all sensory phenomena.
In this artwork my intention is to invoke a symbol of a possible future science. My action should not be taken as the literal form of that science. Nor am I presenting myself as an example, or intending to draw attention to some heroic feat of endurance. I would simply like to point out, and encourage the consideration of, a certain way of using one's own consciousness.
I would like to present a dramatic, sculptural, imaginative representation of the fact that we are each in a box, the boundaries of which are drawn by the body and its senses. We cannot somehow peer out of this system. In that sense it is a space which curves back on itself - a Lobachevskian or Gaussian space - a space with no centre, or with an infinity of centres. Each of us inhabits such a cosmos and visitors to this artwork, given in effect nothing to distract them, are clearly faced only with their own reactions.
Neither can we experience the worlds of others, since the world is a confluence of matter and mind. Although we can potentially agree, in a superficial way, about the properties of the material world, we have no way of experiencing the consciousness of another being except in limited, vicarious ways, mediated by language or arrived at by deduction. We can, therefore, only incompletely affect external events through force or persuasion. To have things always go the way we want would require omnipotent control over the outside world. This is impossible. What is left to us, indeed the responsibility of each of us, is to explore his or her own nature. Acceptance of this responsibility is imperative if we are to refrain from blaming beings and situations beyond our control for our unhappiness, and if we are to work skillfully for our own happiness and that of others.
Self mortification for its own sake has no function in this process of exploration. I have no intention of endorsing a portrayal of denial and hardship. I want to have nothing to do with sensory deprivation, or with escape. On the contrary, my intention is to promote a kind of sensory saturation and a facing up to the facts. All information presenting itself at the sense doors should be fully accepted and understood with penetrative insight, without any filtering, without the "noise" of visualisations or theoretical constructions, and without the interference patterns created by attempts to create or suppress particular sensations.
I would like to make a space in which to assert the primacy of such observation, a space in which the scientist may be both observer and observed. I would like to clear the way for a science which requires no tools aside from one fundamental technique - this single requirement is the ability to pay close attention to the psycho-somatic continuum maintaining steadfast equanimity in the face of all phenomena.
Of course, the technique I will use here is an initial stage in this process, analogous to the practicing of scales at the piano, or the serving of an apprenticeship, to jogging, or the preparation of experimental apparatus. Nevertheless it is important that technique never veers away at any stage from empirical truth. At this level, since I am a beginner, I will take as my primary focus those phenomena tangible as ordinary bodily sensations such as the feelings of heat, touch, movement, weight, etc. Other faculties, such as sight, hearing, taste, smell, and discursive reasoning, although continuing to function, will remain incidental while attention and insight are developed within a delimited field.
This experiment / demonstration is inspired in part by a somewhat flippant paragraph written by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in a 1935 paper entitled The Present Situation in Quantum Dynamics. In the course of a discussion concerning the radical indeterminacy which exists at the atomic level Schröedinger points to the paradox that this indeterminacy seems somehow to disappear at the macroscopic level, where we are confronted with phenomena which behave quite normally according to classical physical understanding.
Events at the atomic level can be accurately expressed only in terms of probabilities - a certain range of actions expressed as the wave function or y function. However our experience of the world around us is apparently made up of certainties. How can both these representations be true? Schrödinger illustrates this problem by the famous graphic image of a cat in a box. A cat which is both dead and alive.
In his own words...
One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is set up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of an hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none. If it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The y function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and the dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation.
A number of important ramifications result from this dramatic scenario. They do not, however, include the rejection of either quantum dynamics or the evidence of our own intuition. On the contrary Schrödinger's primary concern in presenting this thought experiment is to assert that indeterminacy is restricted to a certain scale, beyond which we have an extremely accurate picture. The measurements we are able to make are in fact extremely exact. It is only at a certain scale - a scale which is invisible to our ordinary senses that things dissolve into uncertainty and apparent contradiction. Haziness is not the result of some kind of ineptitude but is in the nature of the thing itself.
There is a difference between a shaky or out of focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.
The tension between mathematical logic and common sense, rather than forcing us to discredit or abandon either, can encourage the opening up of a new perspective. This paradox has a function similar to that of a Zen koan, prompting us to search for a reconciliation of the apparently irreconcilable by systematically uncovering the underlying assumptions. In this case the irreconcilability has to do with the apparent inconsistency of physical laws at differing scales. Nature seems to behave differently depending on how closely we look at it. Such discontinuity is difficult to accept in a universe which our aesthetic sense demands to see as an integrated whole governed by consistent principles.
A paradox, like a koan, is a needle against the thin membrane between the conscious and the unconscious. The needle strains against the translucence of this membrane and threatens to pierce it. It pushes from both sides simultaneously, like a black and white optical game of opposing faces and a vase, creating a conceptual crisis, a confusion.
This crisis is an opportunity to make a creative leap. It is a healing crisis, operating like an illness in the body which signals the need for changes in the entire way of life, for the reappraisal of fundamentals. I would like to begin with the image as presented by Schröedinger, exposing some of the assumptions within it and finding resonances with images from other, quite different, traditions. Such a collision or synthesis may have the potential to foster new insights and new directions of enquiry.
Observation and Measurement
The role of the observer, for example, is an important question, to which this paradox seems to lead us. Somehow the act of observation is instrumental in the collapse of the wave function. It is the moment of opening the box and seeing that the cat is dead or alive which "causes" the system to fall into one or other state. The conscious observer seems to play an extremely active role.
Of course it makes no significant difference if someone opens the box and sees what has happened but does not tell anyone. To all intents and purposes this person and the original box and cat are simply enclosed in another box, the state of the contents of which are a mystery. This is the situation of Wigner's friend (named after the mathematician Eugene P. Wigner, who elaborated on the original thought experiment in order to make explicit the role of consciousness within it). The process can continue indefinitely, like Russian dolls. It turns out that consciousness is a highly individual matter. It only counts as an experience, not as hearsay or speculation. In the final analysis each conscious being is enclosed in a box consisting only of its own personal experience.
Abstraction and Idealism
And yet, despite the revolutionary discoveries of sixty or seventy years ago, scientific practice has yet to catch up. Ordinary scientific method prizes objectivity above all else. It attempts to describe pure phenomena, without an observer, or at most an impersonal, idealized observer. Such a notion has some connection with an assumption dear to scientists: that of the closed system. This concept is fundamental to the experimental method as it stands today.
A class of phenomena, or an actual case, is treated as if it can be isolated from its environment so that one variable may be extracted for measurement ceteris paribus - all other things being equal.
This concept, removed by definition from the real world, can, I suggest, only ever be an abstract, intellectual exercise, and therefore of limited use in the solving of real problems. In the picture of the universe we have from quantum dynamics, which can equally well be said to consist of the propagation of waves as the interaction of discrete particles, no region may be said to be unaffected by any other. At which point can the observer extricate him or herself from the chain of causal relations that constitutes the system under observation? Surely mind and matter are radically interdependent? Isn't consciousness just what arises at the point of contact between the two?
The Worlds of the Senses
Each moment or point of this contact has its particular characteristics determined by the sensory apparatus, i.e., the measuring device. The data from one type of measurement are not simply interchangeable with those from another.
Thus visual information and tangible information, for instance, are not simply alternative aspects of a single reality (despite the confusions of synaesthesia). In fact the worlds of sight and of touch are wholly different phenomena, subject to their own laws and modes of behaviour. The underlying reality that binds them together into a continuous, multi-dimensional universe is the result of a constructive, creative act without necessarily any objective support. It is the same creative act which produces a sense of a self or personality - an agent subtending and supporting various changing phenomena, experiencing them as having a substantial, solidified, continuous existence separate from itself. This creative self is responsible for the construction of a universe which unites all the disparate sense impressions.
There is a blind spot, however, whereby this creative act is not seen as such, and the personality takes itself to be a given. It appears to be some permanent entity standing outside and above all the changing sense impressions. This mistake leads to the illusion of fixity, the dream of stability, of permanence, of an objective, abstract, ideal reality. One which can never be reconciled with actual clear observation.
The demand that events should have some consistent objective reality as particulate or wavelike, for example, is to forget that the method of measurement, or in other words, the sensory apparatus that is used, determines the kind of phenomenon that is manifest. Certain activities lead us to observe particles, others show us waves. Physical material is neither simply one nor the other, but behaves in clearly defined ways under specific conditions.
As our technologies develop to create new senses beyond the "classical" ones of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, so new realities unfold, endlessly. There is no fundamental material to be discovered, no ultimate building block, simply an endless process of iteration, as new and fascinating worlds are discovered. These worlds may be explored and described in their own terms until the creative leap is made to reconcile disparate behaviours and understand them as aspects of a new underlying pattern.
Certainty, then, can only exist within a certain range, prescribed by the apparatus of measurement, whether those are bodily senses, mathematical tools or man-made instruments.
On the other hand, it would appear that there are certain areas of the universe about which nothing at all can be said with any certainty - those parts, namely, of which there is no direct observation. According to the seventh and final proposition in Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
That which we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Truth, Art, Science
The essential paradox is the discrepancy between an ideal actual truth about which, logically, we know that we can say nothing, and the apparent truth of our senses which we repress, deny, forget or pretend to mistrust, and yet about which we speak with vehement certainty every day.
The cat paradox brings the doublethink to a critical juncture. It is manifestly absurd that a live cat and a dead cat may be smeared into one another, yet logically speaking, according to the deepest laws of structure of which we are aware - mathematics - this is what must happen. Science, based on mathematical logic, appears to be flawless, at least insofar as our present powers of analysis are able to ascertain. What we know to be true, however, does not seem to coincide with our sensual experience of the world. This sense experience itself though, seems equally solid and flawless, at least insofar as we are able to ascertain given the present acuity of the senses.
The cat pounces on this issue. The paradox becomes a mouse in its game, never quite grasped nor quite released. Which is real? The microscopic world or the macroscopic?
- The answer of an enlightened person is surely "both". Truth is contingent upon usefulness. It serves a purpose. It gets things done. It is political. It is technological. As ordinary human beings we operate according to conventions and beliefs which may not necessarily be internally consistent. We go about our business in a fuzzy, leaky, hallucination, treating cats and people as though they maintain a continuous existence as entities moment by moment, making assumptions about what we cannot see and do not directly know, taking as true whatever we require for our changing purposes from time to time. This is a pragmatic, utilitarian, common sensical approach, without a modicum of which we cease to be able to function in the world. It constitutes an art of living.
- The answer of an enlightened person is surely "neither". There is in fact an ultimate reality. A truth, a law, which underpins and lies beyond all relative, physical, conditioned states. A universe of which both macrocosm and microcosm are subsets. A meta-physical truth amenable not to quotidian logic and conceptualization but to experience. An experience that can be developed by penetrative insight into the nature of all phenomena from beginning to end. This is a transcendent state, accessible only to the most highly developed consciousness. A state of affairs fully comprehended only by the mind which is satisfied by nothing but the most rigorous attention to detail, accuracy and systematic consistency. It constitutes scientific method.
The Middle Way
Artistic whimsy, however, or imagined veracity, which the first answer may easily amount to, can lead us into all sorts of delusions and dangers. At its most harmless it can lead us to the woolly softness of New Age platitudes. At its most dangerous and frightening it leads to dogma, ideological fervour and blind fundamentalism.
But neither can science, in my view, ever develop penetrative insight by playing "let's pretend" with cats and magic boxes or by inventing bigger and more complicated toys. At best this leads to fiddling while Rome burns. At worst it produces the bomb that razes Rome.
A way is urgently required which will redress the imbalances of both approaches. A path which cuts through the middle, slicing through confusion and allowing the two sides to cleave to one another.
Discrimination and Belief
This middle way requires a commitment which has hitherto had no systematic basis in the western world. It is a whole-hearted commitment requiring intensely concentrated use of all the resources of mind and body. Of course this is difficult. Especially when no precedent is available. Fortunately, we are at a point in history when methods that have been obscured or debased for a couple of millennia, are again coming to prominence.
There is a historical imperative in this re-emergence which may be traced through developments in the empirical method from alchemy to relativity until, finally, quantum mechanics has made certain essential questions no longer avoidable. A methodological overhaul seems necessary and alternative approaches must be seriously considered. These methods may well be useful to help us out of the quandary in which we find ourselves, but they should first be examined with thorough scepticism. Having been examined and tested by rational means they should be either rejected on rational grounds or else accepted.
This acceptance, if it is a mere intellectual acceptance is valueless. Admiration from afar of some formally elegant argument is a useless indulgence. An investigative method or line of enquiry which seems rational should be acted upon. Otherwise we are in the absurd position of the patient who frames, admires and boasts about his prescription without ever actually taking the medicine.
Intellectual conviction must eventually be able to be translated into whole-hearted commitment. Philosophy must inspire faith. Without faith powerful action is impossible and healthy doubt dissolves into cynicism and paralysis. Faith, inspiration, belief in a method, gives us hope and the determination to continue when things become difficult. In the context of rational acceptance of general principles, faith is the strength to leap over momentary doubt and confusion. It is the power that transforms intellectual principles and ideals into actions.
Devotion and discrimination are like the two wings of a bird. Without both working together there is no flight. A science without a proper balance between these two can never get off the ground.
The Cruelty of Abstraction
An important foundation of this way of doing science is the necessity to deal with consciousness and the physical world as they are experienced, yatha bhuta, as it is, without interference. This may seem distasteful to scientists who have traditionally mistrusted personal experience as merely anecdotal and unverifiable and also to those who have systematically denigrated the personal viewpoint in favour of institutional dogma.
Generally, Modern science attempts to isolate its subject. It creates an abstracted model of what it takes to be the relevant features, thus from the beginning assigning a value system which then becomes inescapable. It draws a magic circle around its model muttering the sacred invocation ceteris paribus, then forgets what it has done, taking the model to be reality.
Luckily the cat teases at the woolly ball of assumptions, which unravels eventually, to leave a thread leading us to the source of ideas relating both to the role of the observer and to the nature of experiment.
The cat is a separate life form which somehow, putatively, does not achieve the status of possessing consciousness and certainly cannot communicate its experiences of thought or feeling except, in Schrödinger's example, through a fairly crude mechanical change of state. It is treated like a machine, a mere measuring device without pain or pleasure. Although of course in this case the cat is only part of a thought experiment, nevertheless the kind of use to which it is put remains a common one in all areas of science that deal with life processes, i.e., as is becoming increasingly clear, all areas of science.
This kind of splitting off is, I suggest, a fundamental flaw in contemporary scientific methodology. Biologists make measurements and experiment with other life forms rather than exploring the process of life as it is actually experienced by consciousness. Other species of scientist design experiments which go to great lengths in an attempt to exclude interference by conscious observers. It seems to me that science cannot progress usefully unless a slightly different approach is taken.
I propose to contribute to the debate around this issue by emphasizing the importance of the experience of reality as and when it presents itself rather than the abstract, generalized contemplation of it. Experience requires a far deeper commitment than a purely intellectual one. Such a commitment can lead to insights which parallel those achieved in the intellectual realm and, in combination with them, lead to a far wider and deeper understanding, one that traverses the entire sensual field.
Experiment and Experience
A possible model (in the sense of inspiration rather than substitution) in the West is the example of Samuel Hahnemann, the physician who made a seminal contribution to the science of homeopathy. His method of investigation of the disease and healing process was to experiment not on mice or frogs, flies, bacteria or cats, nor merely to imagine these experiments but to actually carry them out, via a strict methodology, on himself. Only in this way could he achieve an understanding of the workings of the whole organism which included the vital function of consciousness.
Most great workers in the field of science have been acutely aware of the implications of their work in their personal lives, as well as the implications for supposedly "metaphysical" questions. However these questions have too often been firmly relegated to a region beyond the bounds of science.
Infinity and Futility
The logical inconsistency of an empirical method which aims at a thorough and complete understanding of phenomena and yet confines the range of its data is now becoming critically apparent.
Insights into the nature of this inconsistency are thrown up by what has seemed to be an extremely successful scientific method butting up against its own limit - as the paradox illustrates. Wherever there has been a similar situation in the history of science it has resulted in a paradigm shift. Indeed, such shifts are at the heart of the scientific method. They constitute a kind of natural selection of theories, only the fittest surviving in a particular environment before giving way to subsequent generations.
However science is also governed by an implicit rhetoric of progress. This can lead to great unhappiness if the formulation of a grand Theory of Everything is thwarted by an impasse - such as that represented by the cat paradox. Or if, on the other hand, the impasse is breached, as it has been at other times in history, only for scientific workers to be faced with a view of the infinite nature of their labours, as symbolized by, for example, the endlessly recursive Mandelbrot set, or the proliferation of "fundamental" particles.
Thus mathematical logic leads us into a paradox at odds with our everyday experience of the world. Or finer and finer dimensions are uncovered, of increasing intricacy, with no end in sight. (The relationship of Quantum Mechanics to Superstring theory might perhaps be considered analogous in this respect to the relationship between Ptolemaic cosmology and the increasing complications of epicycles and deferents.)
The Danger of Abstraction
Continuous analysis of phenomena in themselves, as discrete isolated systems, the accepted methodology of modern science, does in fact lead to subtler and subtler intellectual understandings and a concomitant technical prowess, but, as long as the whole picture is ignored, which includes the function of consciousness, technical advancement only leads to more problems. It does not lead to skilful solutions to real problems as they are experienced in the course of living in the world.
If Science is to live up to it's name and truly garner wisdom then it must accept its responsibility to come up with strategies which produce lasting solutions rather than short term palliatives. Otherwise it is doomed to give birth to an army of offspring like Viktor Frankenstein's creation, which, lacking in moral discrimination, may turn on their creators.
As the end of the twentieth century approaches we are already all too aware of a political and moral will which is grossly underdeveloped in relation to industrial technology. This problem, far from diminishing, will become increasingly urgent until such time as scientists can develop a rigorous ethical praxis which is wedded at its very source to the empirical method.
Detailed instructions for the development of such a praxis are, I believe, provided in texts originating in North Eastern India over twenty five centuries ago. Having flourished at that time throughout India and further afield, the science of vipassana became obscure, surviving in its pristine, practical form only in certain schools in Burma, to re-emerge in the latter half of this century.
The texts associated with it, on the other hand, are well known and have been the subject of continual scholarship. They amount to a vast body of literature known as the Tipitaka, written in Pali, a derivative of Sanskrit. This corpus, consisting of stories, discourses, rules, didactic instruction, taxonomy and philosophy, claims to describe a system of practices which leads to a thorough understanding of physical and mental phenomena at all scales.
It should be emphasized that the science of vipassana, like that of medicine, is motivated by necessity. Its research is carried out for immediate, practical benefit. Its insights are treated not as intellectual entertainments nor religious dogma but as practical, universally applicable laws.
Central to the technique is the clear imperative that the researcher should strive for immediate and unmediated sensory awareness of corporeality and mentality arising and passing as a succession of moments. This sensory awareness should consist not merely of concepts or names (paññatti ), but ultimate realities (paramattha dhamma) - experiences which actually exist and are present at this very moment. It is made very clear that complete and thorough research, pariyesana, must be experiential, or sevitabbã bhãvitabbã.
The scientific method is expounded with most lucidity in the text known as the Sãtipatthãna Sutta. This describes how the best results are to be achieved by directing the attention to the khanda or aggregates of nãma and rupa, mental formations, and physical formations, as they arise from moment to moment at each of the sense bases. The material world appears as a conglomeration of kalapa, the smallest, indivisible, units of matter. These form the four primary elements, those of pathavi (mass, solidity, roughness, smoothness), vãyo (stiffness, motion, pressure), tejo (heat, coldness), ãpo (moistness, cohesion). The elements constitute rupa the formed universe, objective reality. The flow of phenomena, as it is known to the observer is a function of rupa in conjunction with nãma, mind. Nãma can be similarly divided into four categories: saññã (perception), vedanã (sensation), sankhãrã (volitional activities), and viññãna (consciousness).
The third section of the canon, the Abhidhamma, consists of a systematic categorization and description of reality. It is an exhaustively detailed account of the world which amounts to a complete cosmology, pre-empting the findings of an array of modern disciplines. Its methodology offers a resistance to the fragmentation and esoteric specialization of western science, creating a network of multiple classifications to catch the tiniest details of phenomena. Each characteristic property is described in terms of its function in relation to all the other aspects of the system. This represents a wholly encompassing and infinitely subtle unified field theory, together with a practical method of realizing it. Subsumed under it are the familiar categories of chemical, physical and biological research as well as less mainstream sciences such as psychology and social science and many other disciplines which are as yet unrecognized.
Suggestions are offered, in the literature, concerning certain special "laboratory" conditions which are helpful for the successful outcome of the experiment. These include a degree of solitude, and seclusion from extraneous influences. The senses being continually active, there is no necessity to take any outside object of study. All that is required in order to know the laws of nature, is already available wherever mind and body meet at the sense doors. The technique consists of simply observing each instance of meeting and noting its essential characteristics as closely as possible, without trying to change it or interfere with it in any way.
The understanding thus developed is not suttamaya pañña, deriving from hearsay and taken on trust, nor is it cintãmaya pañña, arrived at by rational thought. This knowledge is bhãvanamaya pañña, direct experiential knowledge.
Such knowledge, because it is in no way based on devotion to a dogma or on an abstract intellectual process, has profound effects on the entire system of consciousness. It penetrates and integrates the entire structure of consciousness like water soaking a cloth, dissolving error and dispelling ignorance, and finally leading to thorough and complete understanding. Because it unifies and harmonizes the psychosomatic structure, rather than setting up tensions between different aspects of it, this method allows the development of increasingly efficient and skilful means to bring about desired results.
These skilful means, or technologies, are known in Pali as siddha, special powers or abhiññã, higher knowledge. Although their existence is acknowledged, however, it is vital that the practitioner is not sidetracked by these peripheral developments while practicing the technique. Far from becoming ends in themselves, these extraordinary powers are given no importance at all. The science maintains the purity of its methodology throughout. Its purpose is the investigation of the world, not its manipulation.
This is in stark contrast to modern scientific practice which, even when it is not simply a lackey of industrial society, nevertheless, routinely relies on specialized instruments designed to extend the range of the senses. Clearly, by straining to see more, looking itself cannot be understood, nor will there ever be any end to looking.
Art and Science
In the pursuit of a purified rationalism, purged of all superfluity, science becomes mathematics. In the attempt to communicate experience it operates by a system of representations and correspondences. In such a symbolic realm, a realm where things stand for other things, mathematics approaches the condition of metaphor, the field of poetry. I would go as far as to suggest that poetry and mathematics are of equivalent value in the production of meaning. Both are artifacts produced as a result of the same fundamental technique. Whether this discipline is called art or science is immaterial.
Here I want to attempt to discern the shape of a possible future practice. A practice in which poetry and mathematics can stand and look each other in the eye (and make a vase between them - seeing both profiles and vase simultaneously. A holy trinity).
Although this action has serious science at its core, based on clear, verifiable facts, and on workable theories concerning the deep structure of the physical world, it also consists of a metaphoric dimension, reliant on diffusion and resonance and echo. This dimension is best explored in a series of poetic images.
Contact F. David Peat