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Science, Mysticism, and the Real

Why do we explore? Perhaps it is because space affects us: the hadal depths of the ocean cut trenches into our curiosity, the distant reaches of the universe beckon with constellations of desire, and the abandoned rooms of a decaying farmhouse twist labyrinthine paths in our unconscious. Past the liminal threshold of these spaces lies a similar horizon – within their shadows there is mystery. More than just a search for unknown facts, humans explore new spaces to experience the unknown as such.

In anticipation for Alain Badiou’s visit to Los Angeles, I was thinking about his lecture topic, entitled “In Search of the Lost Real.” This term, “the Real,” needs quick clarification for those not accustomed to the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, from whom the term comes. Simply put, the Real can be contrasted with the Symbolic. The Symbolic is the realm of culture, which is structured by language. For instance, an encyclopedia is the work of the Symbolic, since it is an attempt to render as much of reality as legible as possible. The Real, however, it that which stands outside of the Symbolic. The Real is all of reality that has not yet entered into language, or symbols, or knowledge. The Real is thus the unknown.

Coming from this, I feel that there are two general stances one can take toward the Real. On the one hand, we can look at the unknown as a veil that needs to be lifted. The goal, for this outlook, is build human knowledge and expand our encyclopedias. Here, the unknown is just a limit of information gathering, a frontier for knowledge expansion. This is an essential human outlook, and one that has brought us endless scientific progress. As such, I will heavy-handedly call this the “scientific outlook.”

On the other hand, we can view the unknown as a state of awe, as a place to exist within like a drop of water in a vast ocean. The goal, for this outlook, is to shed the incessant need for certainty and to simply be, in a blissful state of wonder, within the unknown as such. Here, the unknown is not an impediment toward progress, but rather the goal itself. It is knowledge that gets in our way, since our goal is contact with the unknown. This, too, is an essential human outlook, and one that has brought us many of the most profound spiritual traditions. As such, I will call this the “mystical outlook.”

Contrasting these two views against one another, we could say that science and mysticism have inverse relationships to the Real. The “scientific outlook” is to expand the Symbolic as much as possible by colonizing the Real. The “mystical outlook” is to evaporate the Symbolic as much as possible and therefore live entirely within the Real.

However, perhaps this distinction between science and mysticism is a false dichotomy? My question today is: why can’t we do both? What would it mean to “Both, and yet Neither” science and mysticism? What is the “Both, and yet Neither” of the Symbolic and the Real?

To take the question ever further: What would it mean to live as a mystic-scientist? One who communicates the message of the Real into the Symbolic, but sees these symbols as nothing more than new windows into that very Real? Science too is just another finger pointing at the unknowable “Thing,” the Real. Much like I imagine Einstein to have been, the mystic-scientist does the groundbreaking science, but holds these discoveries not as cold facts of human imperialism, but rather as new windows into the great unknown.

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4 Comments

  1. Featured Image photo credit: Luca Parmitano.

    This image was taken by Esa astronaut Luca Parmitano through the International Space Station’s window on to the Earth, the Cupola. Image taken from The Guardian.

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  2. Eric Larson says

    I would like to extend the idea of a mystic scientist a little. I would say that the “experiment” stage of every scientific test is actually living in awe of the nature we are observing. In fact, maybe the greatest form of awe is to keep asking questions. To further my point I’d be interested to see if there is a single scientist on earth that feels they have dominated the unknown (the imperialist side you mentioned) or if they have all been humbled and inspired to explore deeper; I would assume the latter is more common. Summation: are we not all already mystic scientists in our own way of exploring the world as learned from birth?

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    • A beautiful point, Eric. Well said. I couldn’t agree more! Perhaps this “mystic scientist” is just what it means to be a human living the questions.

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  3. Pingback: Alain Badiou – “In Search of the Lost Real” | Live The Questions

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