Professional contemplatives provide the world’s highest-resolution access to the fundamental processes that create information — the processes by which meaning is extracted from our world, and from which all concepts, scientific or otherwise, are derived. For this reason, professional contemplatives provide the best sources of data regarding subjective phenomena like thoughts, emotions, memories, and consciousness.
All the other instruments of science — telescopes, microscopes, MRI, etc. — simply can’t cross the threshold between the third- and first-person perspectives. They exist as configurations of matter — conceived of in a third-person ontology — and are used to measure other configurations of matter and energy, which are also conceived of in the same third-person ontology.
Currently, the only “instrument” that can access the first-person perspective is a sentient being. And the most refined version of this “instrument” that we have access to is the professionally trained contemplative, who has cultivated contemplative technology in the form of exceptionally refined attention, mindfulness, and introspection (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Professionally trained contemplatives offer the most refined technology — albeit of a different sort than scientists are used to — that we have for studying consciousness directly, and thus for studying the creation of information, since this process is currently known to occur only in the mind of a conscious being.
Obtaining such a firsthand, high-resolution glimpse at the processes by which meaning is derived from reality is tremendously important, with implications for virtually every human endeavor — and certainly for the sciences, which are increasingly taking information to be a fundamental concept within the scientific worldview.
One of the largest scientific contributions that contemplatives can make is to help clarify the nature and potentials of consciousness, as well as the relations between consciousness and other aspects of the natural world. For instance, studies on these topics may involve both neuroscientists seeking to address the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness and physicists seeking to address the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. The working hypothesis at the Center for Contemplative Research (CCR) is that progress on these issues has stagnated “because the radical empiricism that has been the hallmark of the great scientific revolutions of the past has been neglected when it comes to the scientific study of the mind” (Wallace, 2018, p. 205).
Contemplatives can thus help realize William James’s vision of radical empiricism (James, 1976), which failed to take hold in science following the rejection of introspectionism. The introspectionist movement within psychology may not have been dismissed had its researchers been exposed to the advanced contemplative methods that were developed in Asia thousands of years before Western psychology began. The 19th-century world that William James lived in was unfortunately too disconnected — and frankly, Western societies were too ethnocentric — for scientists of that time to not only engage with but also learn from contemplatives who shared common empirical interests. At the CCR, we believe that the time is now ripe for this exchange to occur. Scientists now understand that no single culture holds a monopoly on truth, that geniuses have equally arisen throughout world civilizations, and that diverse cultures may have made genuine discoveries in areas that modern science has yet to fully explore.
One challenge of radical empiricism is to acknowledge that the faculty of mental perception is a legitimate tool of empirical inquiry — a tool that professional contemplatives have been refining for thousands of years, largely beyond the purview of the Western scientific tradition. Bringing these two traditions together will yield an unprecedented convergence of evidence that may enable unprecedented progress on the mind–body problem, the measurement problem, and other foundational questions that remain mysteries to modern scientists.
A second scientific contribution that contemplatives can make is to clarify the nature of genuine well-being, or human flourishing. What can we do to achieve sustainable and resilient happiness? To what extent can we eliminate suffering? What are the upper limits of well-being? Despite the amazing advances in modern technology, which is supposed to make life easier, depression is now the leading cause of disability around the world (World Health Organization, 2017). In addition, the growing climate emergency is demonstrating that insatiable consumption is not only a bad strategy for happiness but also a catastrophic threat to our ecosystems. Although social isolation is often assumed to lead to despair, contemplatives from multiple traditions have repeatedly endured months, years, and even decades of extreme isolation during meditation retreats and emerged from such experiences not only free of mental illness but profoundly sane: sharply attentive, discerningly intelligent, emotionally stable, and deeply compassionate. There are tremendous opportunities to research the transformational power of contemplative practices and to apply this power to a broad array of human endeavors — including education, mental health, business, and athletics.
Professional contemplatives are also ideal collaborators for experiments that require exceptionally high degrees of attentional stability. For instance, cognitive scientists who study mental imagery obtain brain scans of subjects who are intentionally generating visualizations that they perceive with the “mind’s eye.” As opposed to sustaining only a hazy mental image for a few seconds, contemplatives with the proper training can sustain highly focused visualizations for minutes or even hours — far more time for researchers to obtain high-quality data on the neural correlates of such experiences.
Contemplatives’ attention skills would also facilitate physics experiments that test whether the human eye can perceive a single photon of light — a terribly small signal, and one that participants can easily miss if they’re just a bit inattentive. Physicists have proposed a version of such experiments in which the photon is fired at a retina while being placed in a quantum superposition. How we perceive this phenomenon could have massive ramifications for how we formulate and interpret the principles of quantum mechanics (Holmes, 2019). Regardless of how this experiment would turn out, the experimental method is already an enormous paradigm shift: Participants’ verbal reports of their experiences would be taken seriously enough by physicists that the subjective experiences could actually be used to update physical theories regarding objective phenomena. Given that participants would be looking for a minuscule signal, and given that their perceptions could have large implications for science, contemplatives with superb attentional stability would be the optimal participants, as they could achieve an unusually high signal-to-noise ratio in their visual perception.
The research examples described above are by no means exhaustive; they’re merely intended to provide examples of how contemplatives can meaningfully collaborate with scientists in a variety of disciplines. As contemplatives continue to engage with the scientific community in a spirit of open-mindedness, new experimental possibilities and avenues for collaboration are likely to emerge.