Category Archives: philosophy and education

what is science?

i was rooting around in my computer the other day trying to find something i had written about the german philosopher max scheler (see my comment about knowledge in my last post about ann mortifee’s new book).  in this sojourn i stumbled across a philosophy journal i was writing on and off and which contained a nice little assortment of quotes on the question of “what is science?”.   maybe you’ll enjoy it.

antony flew, a dictionary of philosophy:
(no entry under “science” – the following is taken from the entry of”philosophy of science”)
organized empirical science provides the most impressive result of human rationality and is one of the best accredited candidates for knowledge …science does not consist merely in making timid generalizations from wide collections of data, for the scientist’s selection of data is dictated by some theoretical interest, and his results are not simply inductive extrapolations, but rather explanations, models, and theories … another part [of science],emphasized by popper, is the creation of bold, predictive theory … the cumulative character of scientific theory … is characteristic of successful sciences …

georgi schischkoff (philosophical dictionary, in german – quick translation):

science (gr. episteme, lat. scientia) – a cultural endeavour which has not been and is not now practised by all cultures and at all times … science is the epitomy of human knowledge; the body of knowledge and insight, ordered by principles (kant); the ordered cohesion of true judgments, hypotheses and possible questions about the body of reality or certain parts of it … as opposed to unordered empirical knowledge, science not only deals with descriptions but also with reasons … scientific progress consists in evermore systematic penetration into the depth and breadth of reality, into the elements of existence and of events and the connections between them – into the intercoherence of that reality which we call “the world” … science at its loftiest is universal science [as opposed to ‘particular sciences’ such as physics, mathematics, etc.]

microsoft encarta

science (latin scientia, from scire, “to know”), term used in its broadest meaning to denote systematized knowledge in any field, but applied usually to the organization of objectively verifiable sense experience. the pursuit of knowledge in this context is known as pure science, to distinguish it from applied science, which is the search for practical uses of scientific knowledge, and from technology, through which applications are realized.

… and a few quotes:

science is organized knowledge. (herbert spencer)

science is the systematic classification of experience. (george henry lewes)

science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. (thomas henry huxley)

science is nothing but trained and organized common sense differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club. (thomas henry huxley)

science is nothing but developed perception, interpreted intent, common sense rounded out and minutely articulated. (george santayana)

science is the desire to know causes. (william hazlitt)

in essence, science is a perpetual search for an intelligent and integrated comprehension of the world we live in. (c. b. van neil)

i venture to define science as a series of interconnected concepts and conceptual schemes arising from experiment and observation and fruitful of further experiments and observations. the test of a scientific theory is, i suggest, its fruitfulness. (james bryant conant)

the aim of science is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts. we are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. the guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be “seek simplicity and distrust it.” (alfred north whitehead)

am i my body? my feelings? musings on identity and focusing

lately, my three-year-old grandson is quite interested in the whole concept of identity and relationships.

“what’s your mom’s name?” “mommy!”

“who’s that?” “that’s callan. he’s my sister. jaden is my friend.”

“grandma, who’s that in the picture?” “the father.” “what’s his name?” “i don’t know. jack, maybe?” “no, that’s not jack.” “michael?” “no, not michael.” “is his name gordon?” “noooo! not gordon!” (that went on for 10 minutes, to ever-increasing amusement)

and the most interesting one:

i poke him in the belly. he giggles.
me: “who’s that?”
him: “that’s my belly!”
me: “that’s fabian!”
him: “no, that’s not fabian. i’m fabian!”

he’s not his belly. that’s something i’ve been thinking about quite a bit these last few months. to what degree am i my body? my mind? my soul? my ideal version is that it’s all me. i am my mind and my toenail. but it’s so easy to split it all off, and especially from the body. when i say “my feelings” there is a different connotation, a different implication, a different understanding from when i say “my knee”. there is a tacit understanding, often, that i am indeed my feelings but my knee is something that is owned by me, subservient to me. which of course raises the question of who “me” is (that’s material for another post; suffice to say that i quite like what matthew says here, informed by buddhist thich nhat hanh).

these thoughts about identity come to the fore even more now that i am taking a course in focusing. part of this is to go inside and acknowledge/describe a “felt sense” – processes, feelings or sensations that are experienced in the body. a suggestion in focusing is to describe such a sense like in this example:

i notice there is something that feels sad.

what’s curious is how my body reacted to that distancing. there are a number of layers: “i notice”, “there”, “something that …”; even “feels.” it is very different from

i am sad.

my body didn’t like the distancing.  the challenge i see before me is to use the various distances, rather than judge them. i know how very useful it can be for my clients to distance themselves from their feelings, to contemplate the possibility that they are not their feelings, and/or that they are not dominated by their feelings. if that can be useful for them, then clearly i might find some use for it as well.

fortunately, one of the core philosophies of focusing is that wherever the focusser wants to go is right. so there is not party line for me to tow; i don’t HAVE to use the distancing, i CAN use it. that makes me much more amenable to playing with it …

god is community

i like to think about god when i wake up in the middle of the night. i had just finished deepak chopra’s new book on mohammed (review coming up soon). the many stories about the tribes, the complicated family relationships, the exchange with jews and christians, the interdependency with slaves – maybe that’s what made me come up with this idea: god is about community and cooperation. or maybe: god IS community and cooperation.

  • love your neighbour as you love yourself, says jesus.
  • give alms to the poor, says mohammed.
  • respect your parents, says the god of the old testament.
  • we are all one, says the buddha.
  • do not kill one living being, say they jain.
  • ren, a key concept in confucianism, is represented in chinese characters by the image of “human being” and “two”.

religions are, to a large degree, rules for living together. (i know, that’s not a new thought).

“if there were no god, it would be necessary to invent him,” voltaire said. who knows what a god is, whether god exists, and what it means for a god to exist. in my mind, these questions are often not that interesting – clearly, there are important levels at which god/gods exist.

however, i can see how it is through community and cooperation that gods could have been invented. evolutionarily, humans were desperately dependent on community and cooperation. we didn’t have the size of woolly mammoths, the adaptability of the cockroach or the fierceness of the sabre toothed tiger. huddling together, dividing labour, learning from each other as we developed tools were our only chances to survive. (banding together for raids and warfare apparently seemed like a good idea, too). building powerful rituals and stories around these communal means to survive made us stronger.

no wonder there is a god.

questions, koans

sometimes asking the right questions is what turns a problem around. and often making the questions as precise as possible is a good thing. i’m going to take the liberty of using one of raul’s posts. he asked, “why can’t i sometimes help the people i love the most?”  (by the way – read it. it’s quite moving.)

maybe that was the right question. and i wonder, how else could this have been approached?  let’s take the word “sometimes”. when it’s important to indicate that something doesn’t happen all the time, it’s a great word. on the other hand, there are situations where “sometimes” obscures what’s going on. in that case, it might be a good idea to ask something like

“why can’t i help my loved ones who have cancer?”

the good thing about rewriting a question is that it helps us see it in a different light. looked at it this way, i start to wonder, is this really a question, or is it a – a sigh perhaps, a sigh phrased as a question …

what, though, if it really is a question? in that case i’d like to know what the questioner is trying to accomplish, what the exact knowledge is that he wants to gain. in this case, i imagine that raul wants to help his loved ones who have cancer. so we could end up with this question:

“how can i help my loved ones who have cancer?”

this is a question that can be answered much easier, and can lead to action.

there are other times, though, when taking this rational approach doesn’t go anywhere useful or satisfactory.

“why can’t i get over my negative feelings about my father?” is a question someone (let’s call her perl) asked the other day. turning this into “how can i get over my negative feelings about my father?” didn’t have any effect. it was a long-standing problem that just didn’t want to go away. “what will your life look like once you’ve gotten over it?” produced only a lukewarm discussion; it just didn’t resonate, the possibility seemed too far away. “do you want to get over it?” is a question i asked quietly – it didn’t seem appropriate to ask at that particular point. so we were at a stalemate.

then we let go of reason. all we wanted was find a question …

“why can’t i get over my father?”
“why can’t i get my father?”
“why can’t i get it?”
“why can’t i let go?”
“what’s it like to let go?”
“what’s ‘let go’?”
“what’s let, what’s go?”

when we arrived at the last question, perl started laughing. it was a loud, free, happy laugh.

“it’s a koan!” she said, “i found my koan!”

the question doesn’t make much sense. but then not being able to let go of her negative feelings about her father after all these years of therapy didn’t make much sense either.

a koan goes deeper. it pierces through the shield of rationality – an important shield, one we are in great need of, but it’s not the level at which most of our life takes place. “why can’t i get over my negative feelings about my father?” it’s a mystery. so we went to a place of mystery.

what will perl do with this koan?

i don’t know.

where does a koan go?

august 2010 buddhist carnival: right action

every month i delve into the buddhasphere to come up with interesting tidbits in buddhist writing. this time around i was interested in the concept of right action.

the poem we start out with today is the famous shin jin mei poem

the perfect way knows no difficulties
except that it refuses to make preferences;
only when freed from hate and love,
it reveals itself fully and without disguise;
a tenth of an inch’s difference,
and heaven and earth are set apart;
if you wish to see it before your own eyes,
have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
to set up what you like against what you dislike –
this is the disease of the mind:
when the deep meaning of the way is not understood
peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.

thanks, tricycle!

right action and the death penalty

i’m including this one because the writer draws a (perhaps tentative) conclusion that is different from my own; it’s important to me look at a diversity of points of view. also, it’s fitting to start with this one because “do not kill” is almost always cited as the first exhortation in the teachings about right action. i like the simplicity of it, similar to hippocrates’ basic idea, “first do no harm”. here is an excerpt of the post dying for killing:

one of the most important things the buddha taught was “do not kill.” it’s commonly accepted as the first precept. so, buddhists clearly do not believe that it’s right to kill, to take life. as the buddha did not teach, “do not kill except in the following cases…”, it’s commonly accepted that all killing is wrong. this is why many buddhists are vegetarians, peace activists and conscientious objectors.

isn’t it amazing how something so straightforward can be treated with such confusion? because here’s where i start wavering.

right action and the body

here, in fact, is a translation offered by a buddhist from malaysia about the buddha’s teaching. it is interesting how in the west, the idea of right action is usually linked closely to ethics whereas this section clearly is concerned with what one does with one’s body:

and which, friends, are the 3 kinds of bodily moral behaviour in harmony with the dhamma? here someone, stop all killing of living beings, abstains from injuring living beings; with rod & weapon laid aside, gentle and kind, such one dwells sympathetic towards all living beings.

avoiding the taking of what is not given, one refrains from stealing,what is not freely give. one does not take by way of theft the wealth and property of others, neither in the village nor in the forest. abandoning abuse of sensual pleasures, such one gives up misuse in sensual pleasures. one does not have intercourse with partners, who are protected by their mother, or father, or mother and father, or brother, or sister, or relatives, who is married, betrothed to another, who are protected by law, in prison, or who are engaged to other side.

that is how there are three kinds of bodily moral behaviour in harmony with the dhamma… such is right action!

right action, teaching and fun
this excerpt here from back to buddhism illustrates why it can sometimes be difficult to find interesting posts about buddhism – many buddhists just don’t bother to stick the label “buddhism” onto all they write.

i really don’t think it’s necessary to categorize something as buddhism or not-buddhism; after all, there is really not much difference between the two. when i write about racism, i am writing about right mind. when i write about teaching, i am writing about right action.

so let’s see what he says about teaching.

in all my classes, whether they are english or computer science or meditation, i make a concerted effort to make sure it is fun. in fact, i try to make class silly. the class has to be fun for me and it has to be fun for my students. if we are not having fun, we are not learning.

… after lunch is the most difficult time to teach. to counteract the drowsiness of my students, i knew i would have to really knock the lesson out of the park.

it’s relatively easy to act out the verbs – walk, shout, am. it’s also not so hard to point to nouns and dress them up with adjectives. even adverbs are not so hard to impersonate

however, acting out through and at and with is a bit more of a challenge; toward was nearly impossible.
we made it through prepositions i had planned. salt played a big role in the lesson. the salt is on the table, above the table, under the table, with the glass, behind the glass. there was a combination of horror and laughter when the salt went in the glass.

right action, software and the mundane. oh, and green living

at first glance, this post on buddhism and software selection (first found on another malay buddhist blog, buddhist bugs) seemed a little lightweight. well, it is, just like the book they suggest, what would buddha do? nevertheless, there is something intriguing to seeing buddhist teachings applied to something so seemingly mundane (and yet very important for businesses, just like not stealing and not cheating). after all, if we don’t apply the teachings to the mundane, what’s the point?

and if you’re in the mood for more lightweight reading, go to mother nature news and read about the book what would the buddha recycle? once again, it’s easy to raise our highbrow eyebrows but let’s be honest – isn’t light and fluffy material like this that sometimes provides the entrance to more profound learnings?

right action and inaction
buddha’s pillow has a number of posts on right action, like this one on responsibility:

many of us choose inaction in stressful or frightening situations. this is not practice. inaction in the presence of conscious choices of right vs. wrong actions is irresponsible to oneself and one’s world.

right action and social responsibility
more on responsibility.  here`s an interview at shambala sun about social action:
goodman: kittisaro often quotes ajahn chah as saying, “if it shouldn’t be this way, it wouldn’t be this way.” yet we live in a world of great suffering. how do you reconcile ajahn chah’s teaching with the buddhist precepts of “right speech” and “right action”?

thanissara: at some level it’s obviously true—it can be no way other than it is right now. however our actions in the present condition the future.

buddha didn’t just sit there and say, “oh well, the world is at it is.” he acted. in fact he tried three times to prevent a war between those in his home country of kapilavastu and the king of kosala. yet he wasn’t able to stop the bloodshed. he had to accept that this was a karma he couldn’t alter, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t try. on leaving the area, it is recorded that his beloved attendant ananda asked him why he was so sad, to which the buddha replied that his people would be massacred within the week.

right action, therapy, living in the now and values

the smart buddhist, written by a therapist, has all kinds of choice morsels on offer. here he touches on a sensitive point for me, the idea of being value neutral as a therapist:

the experience of living in the present, paradoxically, can tempt us into experiential avoidance all over again, just in a new form. it’s quite possible to trade escape from the now for escape into the now. the recent enthusiasm for mindfulness and acceptance in the west needs to be channeled properly or we risk creating just another form of western self-indulgence. by themselves, mindfulness methods as they’re often used in western psychotherapy don’t give sufficient attention to the organizing influence of purpose in human life. in the spiritual traditions from which such practices were drawn, “right action” is specified through ethical principles. but western therapists are encouraged to take a value-neutral professional stance, and not direct our clients to any particular belief or “right action” enjoined by a religious or spiritual tradition. nevertheless, we still can help our clients gain access to their deepest aspirations and turn a life lived in the present moment into a life worth living.

right action and rightness

in the last little while, i’ve come across a number of situations where people understandably got a little itchy at the idea of rightness, for example in the comments on my post about trying to come up with a definition of mental health. what’s with this right action, right thought, etc.? part of this comes precisely from the doctrine of value neutrality that many of us been exposed to – in therapy for some of us, but definitely in science. historically, this is also (paradoxically) connected to the very fabric of democracy and human rights, for example when it comes to religious freedom. it is useful, then, to look at this idea of rightness. dogen sangha gives a bit of insight here:

there is none among the many kinds of right that fails to appear at the very moment of doing right. the myriad kinds of right have no set shape, but they converge on the place of doing right faster than iron to a magnet, and with a force stronger than the vairambhaka winds.

(even though each of milliaeds rights do never have any kinds of decisive form beforehand, and so there is no right, which exists before at the present moment, and at the same time there is no right, which continues its existence to the next moment. right is always exists just at the present moment, and such a present moment continue at every moment.)

right is a simple fact, which occurs just when it is done at the present moment, therefore it is perfectly impossible for right to exist at a different moment other than at the present moment at all.

right action and musicianship

we started with the art of poetry, let’s end with the art of trumpetry. here is a beautiful piece at macfune about musicians and right action

what, then, of the moral commitment of the musician? what is it to be a trumpet player? certainly we can differentiate between the hack who puts some plumbing to his lips every once in a while and the truest artist whose spiritual being is not separate from the physical processes inherent in performance. the difference is morality. the difference is how one lives one’s life, not how one thinks idly about right and wrong but how one acts.

(side note: nothing is still, nothing is constant, nothing exists from one instant to the next: all we are is action. there are no nouns in this universe, only verbs. all nouns are categorical statements that limit and defy the constantly changing nature of phenomenal existence. “i” should be understood as a verb, not a noun.)

right. so the musician is, like all artists, exploring the fundamental question of human existence: the moral question. when we listen to miles, coltrane, glenn gould, to the cleveland orchestra playing beethoven (!), or to any other great musician, if we pay attention we can hear a profound moral question posed.

i remember reading somewhere or other that the key to understanding jazz is to hear the hidden social message: in the softest, most intimate ballad are the seeds of a profound sadness, and in the most joyous, swinging celebratory bop number is wild rebellion, lurking just beneath the surface.

if you’ve made it this far, thank you! come again next month, on september 15, or read some of the other buddhist carnivals.

focusing: body and mind at the murky edge

please enjoy this guest post by my good friend jael, who is currently studying a fascinating therapeutic technique called focusing.

when i was in my early 20’s i decided to switch from social science to computer science and math at university and live at home with my parents. when the offer of admission arrived, my body’s response (within two minutes of reading the offer) was a bad headache. i ignored the headache, carried out my plan, and went through a painful and difficult academic year that ended badly.

not all bodily knowings get signalled as dramatically as a headache. however, accessing this knowledge can be useful, powerful, exciting. one way of doing this is focusing.

focusing, first promoted by the highly successful therapist and philosopher eugine gendlin, is a way of welcoming subtle body wisdom, and interacting with it to support life-forward movement, whatever that looks like to the individual. each person is different; each person’s bodily process is unique, and each journey unfolds in its own way.

“focusing is direct access to a bodily knowing.” what could that mean? direct access – i sense something in my body that knows more than i can think about with words.

at first, it feels confusing, like there’s something there, and, then, gradually, more comes to me. what do i do with that information from my body? i observe, patiently, respectfully, as the feelings and insights shift and change. being in presence, holding a space for my body to communicate to me; giving space and time for the process to move forward and for a sense of fresh air to be welcomed and received.

are you curious, reading these words? mental health camp 2010 is one place where you can find out more.

there will be a quiet space at this event, where people can rest and renew themselves, and be listened to by focusing volunteers.

katarina halm will be presenting an introduction to inner relationship focusing.

here you can see a video by eugene gendlin about the murky edge of knowing

goals, learning and contracts

after my post about small and SMART goals on garfield’s blog, i got inspired to write another one at brainblogger about the pitfalls and benefits of goal setting, this time taking a bit more of an academic slant. larry ferlazzo took up that post and talked about goal setting in the classroom. it made me think about learning goals. i won’t get much into this right now but i found it interesting that when i was googling around a bit about the topic, pretty much everything i saw were not really learner-directed goals. they were either goals clearly set by the teachers, or contracts that were not really contracts, i.e. they don’t meet the criterion of containing mutual promises. a lot of learning contracts (and contracts in counselling, too, by the way) are of the mafia sort: if you don’t pay up, we’ll break your leg. fortunately, there is usually little leg-breaking involved in learning or counselling contracts but they tend to be one-sided. the promises by one party (e.g. the learner) are numerous and clearly laid out, and often there are no promises made by the other party, or they are not specified.

understanding mental health

may is mental health month. it might be useful to think about what we’re talking about here.

what is mental health?

there are many definitions out there. years ago i wrote a paper about my definition but i can’t find that paper anymore. so why not try again. let’s see …

mental. health.


mental comes from the latin word mens, which means mind. there are more ideas about what “mind” is than we’ll ever have time to talk about here; i think we’re forced to come up with our own definition for this one, too. so what do i think is that thing called “mind”?

it’s the intangible stuff inside a person. wait, just inside a person? animals, too? do you think a dog has a mind? a parrot? a sharK? a bee? we’re just a few words into this and already we get entangled. so let’s just say that non-humans may have a mind, too, but for the purpose of this blog post, we’ll limit it to humans.

“the intangible stuff inside a person” is too vague. we have names for the stuff: emotion, heart, feelings, thinking, perceiving, consciousness, soul, dreams, desire … (what have i left out?). when we use the word “mental”, at one point or another, we touch on all of these. but how do we fit all of these under one hat? is the word “mental” that hat?

how about “the inner life”? is that more descriptive than “mental”?

now of course what happens in that inner life – desire, particularly – influences very much what we do. they call that “behaviour”. indeed, for a long time, psychology (meaning “the science [-logy] of the soul [psych-]”) was referred to as the “science of behaviour.” so we could say that “mental” is about behaviour, too.

is “mental”, then, about the whole human experience, minus the physical stuff? not really. our experience and use of our body is profoundly influenced by the intangible stuff. how our eyes, ears and noses perceive is mental; how we experience pain is mental; how we have sex and deal with a cold is mental. many would argue that healing, from anything from cancer to broken bones to pneumonia, is at least partly mental.

seen like this, “mental” is a good two-thirds of our experience.


let’s move on to “health” now, a concept even vaguer than “mental”, if that’s possible. “health” is related to “whole”. so presumbly, if we have health, we have wholeness. and already, we’re back to perception because our being is so complex, we’re not able to tell whether we are completely whole. all we can talk about are those aspects that are in our awareness. which depends on the mind again. some people, both my daughters for example, are extremely aware of the far reaches of their bodies. every bruise registers on the richter scale. does that mean they are less healthy than the football player who keeps going even with a broken arm? and then there’s the story that everyone has come across – the health nut who suddenly dies of cancer. one day, there is health, the next day the opposite.

health is also often mentioned in connection with “wellbeing”. this is not a bad concept, since it alludes more clearly to the perception of wellness in the moment. the runner who trots along vigorously experiences wellbeing one moment, but not the next. it takes away at least a bit of the absolute claim of “wholeness”. that has advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll see in a moment.

mental health

in physical health, there are certain crude measures that establish the (possible) existence of health, such as blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, a lung x-ray, oxygen uptake, etc. and while in mental health, we have a big tome that tells us about symptoms of mental illness (the DSM, or diagnostic and statistical manual), there is nothing that details symptoms of mental health. so again, everyone is left to their own devices. of course, one can take a few tests to see whether they are “normal” (for example, there is a myriad of stress tests and depression tests; there is also the emotional IQ, or EQ) but most of that is totally driven by the medical model of looking for the absence of illness.

the absence of mental illness is, in fact, what most people are after. while that’s not a bad idea, it has a number of ramifications. mental illness still carries a huge stigma so understandably, most people go out of their way to make sure that they don’t carry that stigma. however, not being “branded” by a psychiatric diagnosis is not the same as mental health. it just means you don’t have the sticker glued to you that screams, “mentally ill!” in many instances this means that people who could easily get help for a comparatively minor problem such as situational depression won’t get that help, which then in turn magnifies the problem.

the idea of the absence of mental illness also hinges on how you define mental illness. “i’m not crazy like my brother-in-law who’s spent the last 5 years in the psych ward” says the hyper anxious weekend binge drinker, happy in her “knowledge” that she’s not mentally ill. let’s say we don’t know whether in fact she is mentally ill – but it’s pretty clear that she is not enjoying good mental health. she also illustrates the disadvantage of the idea of “wellbeing” because once she’s had her fourth drink, she might very easily experiences a few hours of feeling very well. (interesting idea: we could perhaps make a difference between “wellfeeling”, a momentary illusion of wellness, and “wellbeing”, which might refer to something than runs a bit deeper.)

has this thinking out loud helped? let’s try on this definition/description:

mental health is authentically felt wellbeing in all aspects of one’s inner life and behaviour.

i would love to hear about YOUR ideas!