Three Ways to the Same Destination
By Eric Booth
Whatever you do, don’t write essays about creativity, truth or love—they are guaranteed to fail. The subjects defy definition, and if you can’t start with something solid, you can’t arrive somewhere useful. At least that’s what I told myself.
Well, I haven’t written about love. But having finished a couple of essays on creativity, my stubborn curiosity now turns to truth. This ineluctable essay does not hope to make some unassailable case—that is impossible; rather, it seeks to contribute to the ongoing inquiry we humans seem so drawn to. I won’t argue here about certain proposed truths, insisting they are really true; I will present three different pathways to truth that humans have always relied upon.
The civilization-long debate between absolute and relative definitions of truth continues. The one side believes that there are unchanging, timeless, universally-applicable verities. (Religions and many philosophies propose and rely on these.) The other side asserts that truth is not necessarily immutable and universal but can differ according to different circumstances. (Humanists and realists tend toward this view.) Ducking that debate, I will use an imperfect but common sense definition of truth—that which most people can agree is true. For example, I am going to accept this statement as true—on a clear day, the sky appears blue in color. Semanticists and purists of various kinds would enjoy poking holes in its absolute truth. Let them. I am not going to silence the ideas in this essay because of concerns about absoluteness. The impeccable can be the enemy of the interesting. For the duration of this essay at least, truth is what that which a vast majority of people will recognize as meaningfully true. We will focus on three ancient ways our species has developed to come toward agreement about the issues that matter most.
You know the Scientific Method.
I propose the Aesthetic Method.
There is a Spiritual Method, always has been.
Three distinct processes to discover truth. All tested. All valid. All natural to the way humans function at their best. Each provides a different track, uses a different way of knowing, to accomplish the human essential of knowing the truth. The two goals of this essay: clarify the three processes, and provoke your consideration of how they play out in your life.
Our common definition of the word method implies a reliable technique, a recognized way of doing things. Etymologically, however, method means a way of traveling, a way of investigating, which is much closer the perspective of this essay and to the way people actually proceed when they aspire to find the truth. For those who are seekers of truth, these three noble modes of travel, ways of navigating the jumble of stuff in life—which includes the complications of phenomena that are meaningless, manipulative, ephemeral, false, illusory, mysterious and uncertain—provide our fundamental repertoire of paths to get to truth.
Take these three sentences. Eric is like a tree. Eric is a tree. Eric and a tree are the same thing. Each contains some truth. Some of the truths may not be so valuable, but let's get a feel for the three different methods of travel, three different kinds of truth, by using those nuggets as examples.
Eric is like a tree. Is it true or not? This invites a version of the Scientific Method to determine. The hypothesis it presents needs to be tested out: discriminating specific attributes of Eric and specific attributes of trees—are there a significant enough number of strong matches that enable us to claim similarity. (No, this isn’t a classic example of a hypothesis that lends itself ideally to testing by the Scientific Method. A more scientifically-framed example might be: Do the mitochondria in hemlock and human cells process oxygen in the same way? Or How does ginkgo biloba extract, when ingested, influence the blood flow in Eric's brain?) But for the purposes of this example, the kinds of thinking one has to do to accept the validity of this requires the basics of the Scientific Method: State the question. Gather information. Form a hypothesis. Test the hypothesis with experiments. Analyze the collected data. Come to a conclusion. Communicate results. And know that the conclusion about its truth may well be overturned by later evidence and experimentation.
Eric is a tree. Metaphor. Because this statement is literally and scientifically false, we have to proceed in a different way to determine whether it has validity and value. Out goes factual testable hypothesis; enter another kind of truth. While the Scientific Method determines this statement to be false, the Aesthetic Method proposes a value question: Are the treelike qualities of Eric interesting, illuminating, beautiful enough to give the statement value? In the Aesthetic Method, we rely on Keats' law: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Our investigation of the hypothesis in this sentence is another kind of hypothesis testing: we bring our observations of Eric and trees; we take a fresh look at Eric through the filter of our knowledge about trees, to test out its value. If we discover something interestingly new in Eric (or in trees!), we draw the conclusion that the sentence has valuable truth; it has beauty. Our expectation, our test of value, in the Aesthetic Method is that the object of study will bring something additional to the experience of life. Basically, we are asking if it has art in it, as Leonard Bernstein defined art, as having three qualities: It expresses a complex and profound truth; it can be said in no other way; the world would be worse without it.
Eric and a tree are the same thing. Koan. This statement is false on the literal scientific level, and it blocks the aesthetic inquiry by overloading the metaphor with the demand of identicalness rather than poetic similarity. A koan (a Zen Buddhist tool used for spiritual development) is designed to frustrate answering by our common methods of problem solving, logical and aesthetic. The cleverness of koans is their elegant thwarting of the Scientific and Aesthetic Methods of determining truth. We have to step out of literal and metaphoric realities to investigate the truth of this statement; we require a different mode of inquiry. St. John of the Cross captures part of the Spiritual Method in his statement: “In order to come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way you know not.”
Spiritual inquiry seeks to find the unifying aspects that eliminate separateness and awaken the experience of common essence. This method of inquiry requires us to challenge the most basic assumptions that we have inherited in our upbringing, in this case: that things that appear separate are separate, and that humans are special and different. The inquiry process peels away the unexamined assumptions and thoughts that assure these core beliefs in pursuit of an elusive truth. We ask, “Do I know this belief to be absolutely true?” In this case, “Do I absolutely know for sure that Eric and this tree are not the same?” The Scientific and Aesthetic modes answer, “Yes, you know that to be true.” The Spiritual Method invites us to look deeper. The examination of assumptions challenges certainties of both the scientific and aesthetic—can I be absolutely certain that there is no essential sameness in Eric and that tree? The answer in this case, though it may not feel right to the habits of scientific and aesthetic process, is “no, we cannot have absolute certainty of fundamental differentness.” Accepting that truth, the Spiritual Method inquires toward possible elements that make them the same. Many spiritual inquirers over the centuries have discovered the truth of that very sameness, and they would assert that the truth of Eric’s sameness with a tree is a far greater truth, far more consequential, than those derived by the other two Methods.
We all have the capacity for all three Methods, and with informal and formal practice, all three Methods become natural. By “natural” I mean that we can slip into the “feel of”—the “groove of”—the habits of mind of each Method intentionally and eventually instinctively. We all have these three kinds of curiosity in us, which are essential for energizing each inquiry process. We all need all three kinds of results, even if we choose to stint one kind or another. Our practice in each sharpens our access to the pleasures of process and the rewards of recognizing truth that each kind of inquiry provides. Let’s look at each Method in more detail.
THE THREE METHODS
The Scientific Method
The word science comes from the Latin “scientia” meaning “knowledge.” However, the earlier Greek meaning derived from a root word meaning separate/divide/split, and it implied the idea of subdividing things into parts and sorting out the pieces; this reminds us of basic actions of science—separating, identifying, testing. Until the mid-19th century, “science” applied to the study or skill in any field; there was a science of bricklaying and a science of playing the flute. (Just as there was an art of bricklaying and an art of the flute.) The first use of the word “science” in English appeared in 1725 by Isaac Watt in his essay “Logic.” It was only in the mid-18th century that science was separated from art by the narrowing of the definition of the word. They belonged together and fit together until Western cultures separated them 250 years ago.
The term “scientific method” was first used by Francis Bacon. Its roots are in “the Greek practice of deduction” by the natural philosophers, who were the precursors of “scientists.” These philosophers of nature deduced conclusions about nature based on observation. However, most of the conclusions were found, over time, to be flawed, and thus, not a reliable basis for building truthful understandings of nature. This realization and the inquiry to find more reliable ways to assert “facts” about nature exemplified a key process of science—assuming all “truths” may be proven false by objective study, and that ever more effective examination produces new truths.
Bacon’s articulation of a Scientific Method addressed the flaws of deduction by proposing a step-by-step process of building observable data into testable conclusions. This rationalism, with a special reliance on mathematics that later grew from Newton and Descartes, guided Western civilization’s journey toward understanding for a few hundred years. To this day, many describe the workings of the brain as a marvelous computer (even though neuroscientists now describe its function as more like a hologram, and its processes as more like art than rational mechanics). The Scientific Method was the underlying how-to manual for figuring out the world; it made science our deity in the west for centuries.
The Scientific Method came under challenge in the 20th century. Not that it is invalid, but that it can no longer claim to be the way to proceed. It is an invaluable part of the human journey to understand reality (including ourselves, nature, and our world).
The central weakness of the Scientific Method (which is also its greatest strength) is that it relies exclusively on logic for veracity. The certainty of its fundamental tenets—that mathematics provides unassailable truth, that the measurable is the knowable, and that objectivity is essential to all observation—were each undermined in the 20th century. Freud launched our acknowledgement of inner worlds. Einstein provided the link between the matter and energy, which had been understood as fundamentally separate things. Quantum mechanics forced us to compromise our clear understandings of the separateness of observer and observation, our trust in the reliability of cause and effect. We were forced to admit the uncertainty within certainty, the limitations of measurement. Things that seemed separate may not be; things that logic certifies may not be true.
The Scientific Method is, of course, still enormously useful in the world, in scientific procedure and in teaching, in capturing essential truths about the way things are and might be, in getting things done in our lives and in the world. However, it can no longer be the privileged human way to proceed toward understanding and truth. The yang of science needs its truthful yin.
The Aesthetic Method
I propose the Aesthetic Method as that complementary process—not to be used in place of the Scientific Method, but as its respected dynamic partner in finding the truth and discovering more about reality. The word art was used to describe extraordinary accomplishment in any field, artistic or technical, well into the 20th century. In my lifetime we referred to the art of bricklaying and the medical arts—until the arts predominantly became Balkanized to mean a separate strand of life dealing with artistic disciplines and products. However, Zen perspectives kept everyday art—in archery and motorcycle maintenance—possible in all parts of life. Mathematicians and scientists readily refer to the beauty of a mathematical formulae and the elegance of an experimental procedure—Brian Greene’s book and television documentary The Elegant Universe made advanced theoretical physics comprehensible to the layman. With the Aesthetic Method, we reconnect these two “methods” that were split in the mid-18th century, and reclaim their complementarity as a more effective path toward a rich understanding of the important phenomena of our world.
It may seem that “aesthetics” are fundamentally non-methodical. Let’s go back to word roots. Etymologically, a method is a way to pursue something. Our connotations of “methodical” suggest logical sequence, moving step by proven-reliable step; the connotation of “methods” derive from our reliance on the Scientific Method. Take off the coat of armor strapped onto “method,” and go back to its root as a way to pursue something; in this essay we look at methods that provide the fullest understandings humans can gain. Artists have methods for creating works of art; they are certainly not linear. They are quite personal and idiosyncratic, and they not only solve extraordinary problems but also create significant answers to perennial questions. We don’t know what method Shakespeare used to create the deep truths of Falstaff, but you can be sure it wasn’t the Scientific Method.
Let’s also cut back to origins for the word aesthetic. All the way back, aesthetic came from a verb that meant to perceive. This sense still hides in our word anesthetic—the stuff that shuts down our ability to perceive. Since art’s divorce from science over 250 years ago, art has lost much of its social weight. Most Americans now feel it as a fluffy peripheral to the serious concerns of life—not useful, an optional embellishment to real life. The sense of the word aesthetic has become even more fluffified in its academic habitation and its occupation by commerce—coming to suggest some abstract kind of attractiveness impulse for a sophisticated elite. The Aesthetic Method has to do with the action of perceiving at our best, or more specifically: pursuing understanding through the multiple ways that humans perceive best.
Certainly deductive logic and sharp analytic thought are a valuable part of the way we perceive at our best, but they are not the only part; they serve where they serve, and they must allow other kinds of human capacities (all the physical senses and more) to serve as they serve best. I view the artist at work as the exemplar of the Aesthetic Method. In the Aesthetic Method we use the brain logically, but also in many other ways too, analogically and creatively to mention two, and we also inquire using many other approaches and modalities—let’s mention, intuition and body intelligence. We have individual styles in the application of the Aesthetic Method, but we all use some consistent tools and practices, such as provocative questions, data gathering through all senses, brainstorming, imagination, hypothesizing/testing, empathy, interpersonal exchange, reflection. We construct our learning rather than deducing it; we guide the process by internal and discovered paths.
The Spiritual Method
The complementarity and effectiveness of the Scientific and Aesthetic Methods make them seem complete in Western culture as the ways to pursue truth. I share that sense of their completeness—they are a complete half of a coin. The whole coin of truth has another side, a side turned away from Western social conditioning and habits of mind. The Spiritual Method is the other half of the coin.
As mentioned above, The Spiritual Method requires us to set aside the deeply ingrained meaning-making patterns of the Scientific and Aesthetic Methods (although they do contribute to spiritual pursuit) to get a feel for its process. All people have the capacity for the Spiritual Method in them, but it can be buried deep and denied. Many spiritual traditions and religious practices seek to provide access to these ways of knowing—the inquiry is subtle and unfamiliar. Also the all-too-human organizations that support religious and spiritual pursuit tend to lose focus on the mystical side of the coin.
Yet, many, if not most, people find spontaneous eruptions of spiritually-acquired truth sometimes. These often appear (usually unsolicited) around life crises, which we might think of as life-earthquakes that disrupt confidence in the logical and aesthetic topography we stand upon. The death of someone we love, a sudden slap of mortality-awareness, can surface insights into truth that come from the spiritual “lab” which has been closed from conscious access ‘til the disruption to norms. Suddenly the fundamental kinship between “Eric” and “the tree” can seem palpable and inarguable. Whatever you might choose to call the common essence they share (“life force,” “universal consciousness,” “God”), the direct knowing of their sameness is a bedrock truth upon which other kinds of truth can rest.
Inquiring spiritually to ascertain truth requires us to recognize a direct sense of knowing, not defaulting to our usual mental or even emotional sense of certainty. We are used to “understanding” and “feeling” truth that is logical or “just somehow right”; the knowing of spiritual truth is a direct awakening to an unmistakable direct experience of clear reality. We all have this clear experiential realization in us. It is often a long journey for people to access it, but the experience of it when recognized is so powerful it eliminates doubt. The “methods” that encourage the emergence of this experience of insight relax away the other ways we are trained to know things, to allow admission to this overlooked awakened seeing.
The word “allow” becomes crucial and challenging here, because the “trying” that advances the Scientific and Aesthetic Methods does not help in this learning. We sense our way into the Spiritual Method, leaning in to directions that feel right, but learning not to apply effort. Curiosity is valuable, desire for its kind of truth is essential, but the path of inquiry emerges when it emerges, seemingly more the gift of grace than endeavor. This paradox produces frustration and confusion for many, and the ambiguity of the guidance makes others dismiss the whole process as fake. Not to those who have experienced the impact of the direct knowing of spiritual truth.
The certainty that comes with this direct knowing is often as life changing as was Helen Keller's moment of discovery that the signs Anne Sullivan shaped in her palm were the word for the wetness spilling over their hands. The experience of discovery that there is something profoundly and essentially the same inside this Eric and that oak is an absolute truth when it is experienced.
THE INTERPLAY OF METHODS
While these three approaches may seem like a tidy left-brain/right-brain/no-brain argument of differentness, it is not so simple. First, they are not really separate—scientific work is full of aesthetic and intuitive thinking. Artistic work is full of logical, methodical linear analysis. Spiritual work requires the contribution of the mind and intuitive feel for quality and beauty.
The discoveries of neuroscience, especially from fMRI scans of humans participating in activities that match with these three kinds of brain function, suggest that very different things go on in the brains of people pursuing the three different Methods. There seem to be patterns of brain activity that are distinct to each kind of inquiry, however there are similar aspects and a fair amount of ambiguity about the early fMRI data. I feel sure that as cognitive science grows we will find evidence that aesthetic engagement seems to be distributed throughout the whole of the body, holistically, more than scientific thinking—and that spiritual inquiry taps into capacities we have no instruments to measure.
Each approach has its weaknesses, which are easy to caricature. The Scientific Method can be portrayed as rigid, “by the book,” inhuman and procedural. Picture the bespectacled scientist in a lab coat with checklist. The Aesthetic Method can be charicatured as flighty, indulgent, directionless and narcissistic. Picture the aesthete, with black clothes, expressive hair, and animated gestures. The Spiritual Method too often really is bogus, new agey, unverifiable, and ephemeral. Picture the bearded guru on a cushion holding a crystal. Each can be, and often is, yoked to the interests of organizational or commercial purposes: from academic success, to sales and marketing, to religious missionary activities. Each has its own industry, with silo-ed organizations and individuals, and advocacy cases for their primacy.
Although all people have the capacities necessary to proceed along all three pathways, individuals choose the methods we they wish to follow. Most people practice scientific thinking so much, in work and in life, that this way of thinking becomes the dominant or sole kind of truth they pursue. We all include aesthetic processes in our lives, but many don’t credit the method or their capacity—our cultural semantics turn this method into something about “art,” which many people do not identify with in deep ways. Yet, all people feel their way to valuable, insightful, productive moments in life with a compass of beauty, quality, and non-literal richness. A very few dedicate themselves to a spiritual path and practice awareness, learning to relax in the experience of not-knowing until that deeper knowing appears.
Some people take the practice of their preferred methods to the extreme. In such cases, I observe that the three methods become hierarchical: Those who come to live only by the Scientific Method have little access to the truths of the other two. Those who live by the Aesthetic Method have a feel for the verities of Scientific Method (although they viscerally feel its limitations) but may or may not have any sense of the Spiritual Method. Those who dedicate their lives to the Spiritual Method recognize, respect and utilize the other two kinds of truth, even as they seek to abide in the third.
And I notice this about hierarchy. Those who elevate the truth provided by the Scientific Method, dismiss as invalid (or at least deem less valuable) the truths of the Aesthetic and Spiritual Methods. Those who embrace the truths of The Aesthetic tend to respect the validity of Scientific too, although they sense it as different and complementary—accepting a fundamental dualism in life. However, those with an experiential knowledge of the Spiritual Method do not see three separate pathways or three different kinds of truth. They see one kind of truth, a universal truth that contains these three kinds of truth within one unity that can be accessed in various ways.
I believe we can bring these inquiry methods together to go deeper in understanding. We can find the 21st century way to come to knowledge, using the best of what we humans have got.
We need the Scientific Method—always have, always will. Homo sapiens has survived and thrived upon questions like: Which berries are poisonous to eat? How might a wheel carry weight? Why do some cells become cancerous? And personally, over a contemporary lifetime our Scientific Method proposes questions that help us: How do I get a spoon with applesauce from that bowl into my mouth? When do I use or not-use certain words? Where we should plant a garden? How should I invest my savings? People not only have to, we like to figure things out, scientifically. The Scientific Method produces good results, and data produced by mistakes, in the lab and in life, is among the most powerful instruction we get in life.
We are also inherently aesthetic beings. We move toward what is more attractive; we become more elegant with practice; we appreciate (demand!) quality in many aspects of our lives. We guide a lifetime of choice-making with our gut sense of better and worse; and some people educate themselves to refine their understandings of quality—for example, oenophiles explore deep into the truths of wine. In advocacy speeches about the arts, I ask audiences if they have recently made important decisions based on their high school chemistry (few raise their hands) or based on aesthetics. Before they raise their hands about aesthetics, I remind them that aesthetics inform intuition and gut feel, comparison with past experience, as well as evaluation of appearance and quality—and then every hand gets raised. We find meaning through narrative and comparison, things that are like and not like things we know—aesthetic considerations. Learning is based on making connections between things we know and new things we meet, connections that are scientifically logical in some cases, but are also made aesthetically with senses, emotions, body, intuition, spirit, metaphor and memory. Psychologists have shown that infants incline toward the face that is more attractive. We are beauty-seeking animals.
We are also spiritual, awakened beings. Most of us forget that most of the time, but resting patiently inside all humans is an inquirer who seeks for a more intimate experience of what William James called “the more.” We want to know what we know, experience what we know more intimately, and we pursue many paths, religions, practices, take walks along the beach, talk to wise elders, read books we think hold deep truth, to come into intimacy with the greatest truths. Some argue that newborn children are enlightened beings, with no sense of separateness, and a direct experience of truth, albeit in simplified form. The complicated business of growing up and then managing a life distracts us from the spiritual awareness and inquiry that we have in our nature. The Spiritual Method is a journey of sloughing off and remembering, following the scent of absolute truth for direction.
There is probably an organic developmental sequence in humans, from enlightened infancy, to scientific socialization, and aesthetic individuation, into spiritual maturity, akin to the scheme of life stages offered in Hinduism. Many, perhaps most, people do seem to incline more toward the Aesthetic and Spiritual Methods after the busiest years of adult responsibility. But our culture and social structures place such huge demands on individuals that any natural evolution of inquiry methodology is distorted by necessity, and pounded into habitual ways of thinking and exploring. I propose that Western culture, particularly U.S. culture, is so skewed in preference to the Scientific Method that it bullies the others into submission, into quiet or secret expression or convenient mislabeling. We all fare better in life, live more fully, as we get a feel for all three ways of determining truth.
My experience in life provides a variety of encounters with people who use the Methods in different ways. I delight in meeting those adept in any Method. Those who can apply the Scientific Method incisively and with flair to reveal truth expand my world. I love the many I work with who are artists in life, who find and form beauty everywhere, in “artistic” media and in everyday media (from cooking to conversation to business reports) because they can. I honor those who are dedicated to the particular challenges and demands of mastering the Spiritual Method; it is so very hard to follow, no less master.
I mourn for those with distaste for scientific process, those who have lost the delight in metaphoric truth or scorn the possibility of spiritual truth. I delight in the writings of scientists who celebrate the mix of aesthetic and spiritual truths—Einstein, Bohm, Bohr, Feinman, Sagan, Lewis Thomas. I even meet many who are capable in a Method and deny it—the “slow learner” who can fix any kind of engine; the “non-artsy” handyman whose work is beautiful, the “just a housewife” who is spiritually awake. The adepts of all three Methods, whether proclaimed or not, cut through the rubble and illuminate the truth for us in our overstuffed lives; they are our heroes, our teachers, our best friends.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself in considering your personal walk on these three paths. Which methods do you rely upon? Which truths do you seek to attain? Do you agree that a life with active access to all three is enriched? Do you seek greater fluency with the Methods you use less frequently? What is your learning plan to get better in your less practiced Method, and how is it going?
For me: I am wired for the Scientific Method, like most U.S. males (and of course, many females, but there does seem to be some gender proclivity), possibly most males in the world. I have spent the preponderance of my working years exploring and gaining skill in the Aesthetic Method. And in my late years, I moved my backburner dilettante’s interest in the Spiritual Method onto the front burner. I have had soul-searing direct experiences of the truth through each of those methods that confirm my intuitive sense of their validity. My use of the Scientific Method has provided the greatest successes of my consulting career—much of which has ironically happened with arts organizations. The Aesthetic Method has established a series of artistic and personal epiphanies that guided my life like marker buoys that appeared when I needed them. The Spiritual Method provided me some days of blissful enlightenment, which fade, but which seared a certainty that underlies the truths I now pursue above all.
I now move through life with increasing awareness and interest in these three Methods. I recognize both their organic and skilled expressions. I acknowledge the ways they are rejected and their unintentional interplay. I see others incline toward one Method and reject another—and I see the cost and benefit of such patterns. Within myself, I am learning to go with the kind of inquiry that the occasion invites.
The perspectives in this essay could be treated as little more than an intellectual party game (or tavern pickup line) like “what’s your astrological sign” or “where are you on the introvert/extrovert continuum”? However, the pursuit of truth is such a bedrock of the good and the better life, and the three Methods we humans have evolved to pursue it, are so full of pleasure and promise, that they are consequential in the game of living.
A flamboyant dawn is breaking outside the winter window as I write this closing paragraph. The colored refraction of the sun’s rays from the effect of electronic radiation scattering is so beautiful, evoking a sense of the human history of cycles, and allowing a hot pink recognition of my own fresh beginning. The sun and I are the same.