The Synthesis Method
Written by Dr. Nash Popovic
All the above approaches contribute in their unique ways to the understanding of reality, but none of them is likely to provide a full picture. Not only are they incomplete and insufficient on their own, but they also seem to be stuck in ostensibly irresolvable conflicts with each other.
This is not only of theoretical significance. Our very survival may depend on an ability to transcend the superfluous and synthesise what is important in these approaches. Human society cannot long afford to live in a world in which philosophy is disparaged, religion contradicts science, and science contradicts common, everyday experience and social practice (e.g. democracy assumes choice, and our legal system personal responsibility – both are based on the notion of free will that is not upheld by science). Such antagonisms must be reconciled in order to produce a more adequate and complete interpretation. This does not require the abandonment of the current methods – they have contributed to knowledge and continue to do so – only a recognition that they have limited value in isolation and that, in some cases, it would be beneficial to combine them. It has been recognised that “objections to novelty and to alternatives come from particular groups with vested interests, not from science as a whole. It is therefore possible to gain understanding and to solve problems by combining bits and pieces of ‘science’ with prima facie ‘unscientific’ opinions and procedures” (Honderich, 1995, p.809).
Of course, there are already grey areas and points of contact between these approaches. Philosophy of religion and philosophy of science are well established disciplines. Some theologians have thought that a scientific approach is the best means to understand God, while others have resorted to philosophy. However, these are rarely efforts in synthesis, but rather attempts to use one approach to support (or discredit) another. A proper synthesis would first require overcoming two obstacles:
Exclusiveness that stems from a belief of the adherents of a particular perspective that it can grasp and explain everything on its own. This is, however, highly unlikely. For example, science has a reliable method but a limited scope. Spirituality, on the other hand, can perhaps reach what is not accessible to science, but its insights cannot be easily verified and are prone to distortions of interpretation. As Albert Einstein famously put it, ‘science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’ (Einstein was not practising any religion, so he most likely had in mind here spirituality).
Ideological baggage: history shows that when one of these approaches takes over and starts dominating, it easily becomes a form of ideology with undesirable consequences. The canonisation of religious ideologies has frequently led to the slowing down of individual and social development, and also (with a few exceptions) created a state of permanent conflict and bigotry between different faiths – without some changes there is no hope for reconciliation. There is a profound awareness that an overgrowth of materialistic science and technology could potentially also have a devastating outcome if it is not moderated by the development of other ways of knowing. The aviator Charles Lindbergh made this poignant comment: ‘I have seen the science I worshipped and the aircraft I loved destroying the civilization I expected them to serve.’ This, of course, does not refer only to the destructive power of machines, but also to zealous attempts to apply scientific methods to life, especially human life (eugenics and social Darwinism being two poignant examples). An even more pervasive consequence of materialism is a climate in which technocracy, selfishness, meaninglessness, competition and consumerism dominate, which also prevents further progress and ultimately leads to a dead-end. With equally disastrous consequences, cultural frameworks and philosophical ideas can be turned into a tool of repression. Nationalism and Marxism may be prominent but certainly not unique examples (Nietzsche’s own sister revised his writing to provide support for the ideology of racial supremacy; philosopher Heidegger advised his students in 1933 to abandon doctrines and ideas and salute Hitler). Even if these cases above are considered historical aberrations, there is a more subtle but enduring problem with ideology of any kind: ideologies are linked to social power and control. However, unlike knowledge, power is finite. Giving knowledge to others does not decrease the knowledge of the one who gives, but giving power to others does. Unreflective faith in an ideology, regardless of whether it has a spiritual, scientific or philosophical basis, inevitably involves giving some power to those who are in charge of that ideology and, therefore, decreases the power of individuals. This in turn limits the fluidity or flexibility of society, both of which are essential in times of rapid changes.
Dealing with these two challenges would make a synthesis possible, but may not be sufficient. A synthesis between several complementary perspectives is also necessary:
- First of all, the bottom up direction (reductionism) needs be combined with the top down direction (holism). Reductionism attempts to explain complex phenomena by their components. Holism, on the other hand, claims that the significance of the parts can only be understood in terms of their contribution to the whole, so epistemically the latter must come first. Most approaches have a tendency to favour one of these perspectives (e.g. reductionism in most of science), but this does not need to be the case. It is possible to recognise the value of both.
- Synthesis also requires reconciling two ways/modes of enquiry: one that examines the objects of experience (experimental), and other that examines the experience of objects (experiential). A comprehensive and accurate interpretation must rely on both, objective knowledge derived from manipulating reality (e.g. by creating controlled conditions in a laboratory) and objective knowledge derived from manipulating the experience of reality (through personal transformation). Objective means, in this context, avoiding collective bias (ideological constraints) and personal bias (prejudices, preferences) respectively.
- Finally, empiricism (in a broad sense, that includes all three types of experience suggested at the beginning) needs to be combined with rationalism. This can surely be more productive than relying solely on either experience or reason. Knowledge progresses through checking reason against experiences, and checking experiences against reason.
When all the above is taken into account, there remain a small number of methods that can be combined. Three methods that relate to three types of experience (personal, impersonal and transpersonal) can be discerned: phenomenological, inductive-deductive and transpersonal. We also need a method that can reliably interpret our various experiences and that can serve as a link between them, so reasoning is added too. Of course, not all these methods always have to be used together. In many cases we may need only one or two (as visually presented in the diagram below). But we can only hope to find answers to our deepest, most profound questions in the centre, where all these methods are combined.
Let’s now have a closer look at these methods. In each case, we will provide:
- A brief explanation of the method and the approach with which it is associated
- How it can attain sufficient objectivity so that its findings and insights may have a degree of universality and shared value. We recognise that absolute objectivity cannot be achieved, so the commitment to objectivity by adhering to the suggested attitudes and criteria is what matters.
- Striving for objectivity can help us refine existing knowledge and understanding but expanding and evolving them is important too. Hence, we also propose some ways by which each method can do so.
 At the moment, scientists are most susceptible to this belief because their approach is dominant. But, as Feyerabend points out, defenders of science typically judge it to be superior to other forms of knowledge without adequately investigating them.
 Judge David Hodgson, among others, has written extensively on this topic (see, for example, Hodgson, 1994).
 ‘Objects’ in this context, of course, may include people and other life forms.
The Phenomenological Method
What it is: the phenomenological method is associated with the common sense approach and is based on personal experiences. The term phenomenology was coined by the philosopher Edmund Husserl at the beginning of the 20th century, but interpreted in a broad sense (as a method of enquiry) it has been practised since ancient times. What is arguably the clearest and shortest definition states that phenomenology is ‘…a turn to subjectivity with the intention of arriving at objective truth.’ (Solomon, 1988, p.130) The aim is to gain insights about essence from experience alone rather than through the veil of pre-existing mental constructs. In other words, the phenomenological method is an attempt to examine experience as it is, prior to our own distortions. The object of its description is to ‘…go beyond the various “facts” of experience and the reality of theories and practices to those features of experience which are “absolutely given in immediate intuition”… Not the evidence of the senses but of the consciousness as such.’ (Solomon, 1988, p.131)
Objectivity: all personal experiences are real and, phenomenologically speaking, true. But, our experiences and particularly their interpretations can be contaminated by our biases, personal preferences, expectations or judgements. A lot stems from our interpretation rather than from an experience itself. This is why it is hard for knowledge obtained in this way to attain universal or shared value. We could claim that this doesn’t matter, that such knowledge is not meant to be universal – there is certainly some truth in this. However, this is not to say that experiences upon which common sense is based do not have potential in this respect. After all, great pieces of literature that often encapsulate such knowledge speak to us across cultures and across ages. Failing to make use of this potential would impoverish our understanding of the world. To distil from our experiences that what could be generalised we need a certain objectivity – but of a different kind than the scientific. Such objectivity is not achieved by distancing ourselves from the subject of our enquiry, but by going into depth, submerging oneself below personal (or collective) assumptions, prejudices and preferences. To achieve this, we need vigilance and discipline in recognising what comes from the phenomena experienced and what comes from us, and putting aside (bracketing) anything that we add to an experience.
Expanding knowledge: heuristic or intrapersonal enquiry, already used in qualitative research, is a way that this method can expand knowledge. Heuristic enquiry asks: ‘What is my experience of this phenomenon and the essential experience of others who also experience this phenomenon intensely?’ (Patton, 1990, p.71). Rather than detaching oneself from the subject of enquiry it requires a willingness to get personally involved with it.
The Inductive-Deductive Method
What it is: this method is commonly associated with the scientific approach. Inductive research aims at developing theory from specific observations or controlled experiments. The deductive method takes similar steps but in reversed order. It starts from a theory or hypothesis and then analyses the available data in order to support or refute that theory or hypothesis. Hence, induction goes from the specific to the general, while deduction goes from the general to the specific. These two produce the best results when they are combined as this creates a virtuous circle between theory and practice. This is important because a conclusion based on an inductive method can be invalidated, but can never be irrefutably proven. In addition, some phenomena (such as gravitation) cannot be directly examined, only their effects or consequences can (scientists are looking for hypothetical gravitons, but they are as yet undiscovered). This is nothing new. For example, Silver writes that ‘molecules were part of the scientist’s explanation of nature long before we could observe them. Their existence was deduced from the behaviour of matter’ (1998, p.18). Of course, it is important to go as far as possible in providing empirical support, but some conclusions will always have to be inferred. However, the conclusions of the deductive method can only be true if all the premises set in the inductive study are true and the terms are clear. To put it simply, there will always be something that a deductive system cannot prove to be true, because it depends on premises that cannot be deduced. As Gödel’s theorem (mentioned above) demonstrates, no formal deductive system can be completely foolproof – so we need both induction and deduction.
Objectivity: to minimise a bias, data collection based on observations requires a degree of personal detachment and independent verification. However, this so-called scientific detachment can be only an ideal. Researchers cannot completely avoid bringing themselves into the story (e.g. the very questions that researchers ask influence the outcome). Furthermore, it may not even be desirable for researchers to be entirely neutral. Reality can never be fully captured by explicitly excluding the subject. Detachment, taken too far, can become an obstacle rather than an advantage. Distancing seems a more realistic attitude than detachment. While detachment strives to achieve objectivity by eliminating the subject, distancing does so by including and maintaining a broader perspective. In other words, situating the observed as well as the observer in its historical and circumstantial context (which can help us recognise our possible distortions).
Expanding knowledge is generally achieved through object manipulation – expanding on our perception of reality by using instruments and conducting controlled experiments.
The Transpersonal Method
What it is: this method of knowledge acquisition involves the person in a profound way. However, it also transcends ordinary personal experiences in terms of perception (e.g. awareness of or sensitivity to phenomena beyond their physical manifestations) or the ways insights are arrived at (revelations or illuminations as a result of, for example, sustained contemplation). Such transcendence is often associated with mysticism and non-rational aspects of the mind, but it can in fact be relevant to any subject of enquiry, even those that are traditionally the domains of philosophy or science. Socrates habitually communicated with his ‘daemon’; mathematicians Carl Gauss and Srinivasa Ramanujan claimed that answers to some of the riddles they were struggling with were given to them by God; chemist Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene (which was the beginning of modern organic chemistry) in a vision of a snake swallowing its tail, while neuroscientist Otto Loewi found how to conduct experiments on neurotransmitters thanks to a dream.
Rather than reality being manipulated (as, for example, in scientific experiments), in the transpersonal method the experience of reality is. This may involve at least temporary altered states of consciousness (the most common being dreams), which poses some unique challenges:
- The shifts of awareness can happen spontaneously and are not uncommon. However, they are often subtle and pass unnoticed because of a widespread expectation that transpersonal experiences have to be something special and grand. In fact, tiny expansions of awareness or changes of focus are what matters in most cases. We can compare this with listening to a faint radio station that is normally muted by a stronger one. Such ‘signals’ can be accessible to everybody, but they are tenuous and fleeting, so some practice is needed to get anything out of them.
- In essence, the transpersonal method is about receptivity to that which is beyond our established mental constructs. The trouble is that as soon as we have such experiences, we tend to project onto them images that we are familiar with. As we have seen above, this can still serve as a catalyst for some insights. However, if such an experience is to have an epistemic value at the transpersonal level, we need to put aside our own projections and remain, as much as possible, truthful to the experience itself.
- Isolated pockets of experience are pretty much meaningless. This is similar to an untrained person looking through a microscope – they will probably not be able to discern any meaningful information. To get a coherent picture and make sense of such experiences, a systematic approach that requires training and discipline is necessary.
- Of course, objectivity is in this case also a challenge, perhaps even greater than for other approaches, so we will address it in more detail.
Objectivity: while science attempts to be objective by detaching from the personal, and common sense by going into personal depth, this method can aspire to greater objectivity by transcending the personal. When we take a larger perspective, the influence of our personal leanings and preferences that normally have a hold over us is reduced. However, as in the case of scientific detachment, this way of achieving objectivity is an ideal that is not easily attainable. Furthermore, unlike scientific observations, altered states of consciousness can produce entirely fictitious mental events such as illusions and hallucinations. If we want transpersonal experiences to contribute to our knowledge and understanding, we need to find a way of distinguishing them from the purely subjective ones. To do so, what needs to be verified foremost is the source: whether the experience corresponds to something that is not entirely the product of one’s own mind or not. This is a notoriously difficult task. Some scholars (such a William James) take a pragmatist position: if an experience is positive and beneficial, it is true. This, though, can hardly work beyond the individual. Seeing fairies, for example, may be psychologically beneficial to some, but it does not have a value that can be shared. For the latter, certain criteria need to be observed that will bear out the perception and enable situating it within a larger context. The criteria of other methods are hardly applicable in this case, so we need ways of testing the genuineness of transpersonal experiences that are tailored for them. Here are some suggestions:
- A lack of other plausible explanations. All other reasonable possibilities have to be examined and eliminated. A transpersonal element should not be invoked if an experience can be explained without it.
- The quality of the process or procedure leading to an experience also needs to be taken into account (such as possible contamination by the influences of one’s surroundings if using psychotropic substances).
- A greater sense of permanence than in ordinary dreams may indicate a transpersonal experience (in dreams, if we look again at an object we have seen previously, it will most likely be changed in some ways).
- Transpersonal experiences are usually characterised by a sustained awareness of the parameters of ordinary reality, commonly indicated by an element of surprise (in ordinary dreams, even the most bizarre events do not seem surprising). Maintaining a serenity of an observer even when intense emotions are present is also common. In short, transpersonal experiences mean perceiving normally inaccessible aspects of reality with a clear mind. The presence of these qualities does not guarantee that an experience is transpersonal, but in our experience, it makes distinguishing between what is and what is not transpersonal easier.
- Phenomenological criterion: ‘…from a subjective perspective [these experiences] feel truer, more real than dreams, hallucinations, even ordinary perception, they seem to represent “a more fundamental reality than the baseline reality”’ (Horgan, 2003, p.78, quoting Andrew Newberg, a researcher in mystical experiences). The genuine conviction that what one has experienced is real should persist after the experience, when one returns to the usual state of mind (after a hallucination, the person is normally aware that he was hallucinating).
- All the elements of a transpersonal experience should make sense within a given context. For example, it is legitimate to ask ‘why would real angels need wings?’, and if there is no plausible answer to it, to consider that seeing winged angels may involve (at least in part) some projections.
- Maintaining some control, agency and choice (e.g. an ability to return to the ordinary state of mind at will). Transpersonal experiences can be spontaneous, but there are hardly any plausible accounts of such experiences being imposed to a degree that one feels trapped in them.
- The object of the experience has to have a relative independence from the experiencer. For example, if an observed phenomenon moves as the observer moves their eyes, it is likely that it is a product of their mind.
- Although such experiences can sometimes refer to the person involved, their meaning usually has a more impersonal, general nature (whereas those with certain mental disorders, for example, tend to see everything as a personal message intended for them alone).
- An experience is more likely to be real if others have had similar experiences independently. Considering the possibility of a collective bias, fantasy or even hallucination, arriving at them independently is of the utmost importance.
- Correspondence: the perception of somebody’s energy field, for example, can be validated by correlating any insights gained to the emotional, physical or mental state of the observed person. In the same vein, the legitimacy of non-rationally derived predictions can be verified by systematically recording actual future events.
- It should be possible to interpret an experience in such a way that it makes sense in relation to other transpersonal experiences.
- Experiences that can lead to explaining or understanding certain phenomena better can be tentatively taken as real.
- Even though these experiences cannot be reduced to, they should not be in breach of, generally accepted facts, common sense, and reason. In other words, if a transpersonal inference is valid, combining it with the findings of other methods discussed here should be not only possible, but also beneficial. As in other cases, the self-sufficiency fallacy has to be overcome to move forward.
The way of expanding knowledge: manipulating our consciousness through a relevant training and other ways of shifting the levels of awareness is a recognised path of enhancing transpersonal experiences.
What it is: reasoning is thinking that adheres to some internal principles and rules. Through reasoning we can arrive at certain knowledge that would not be accessible otherwise. Furthermore, it can help connect findings based on the above methods into a meaningful whole.
Objectivity: to preserve its independence and allow an unbiased verification, reasoning must be governed by its own internal criteria. Four of them are suggested here (we will see soon that some existing scientific or religious interpretations breach one or more of these):
- Congruence means that reasoning should not contradict accepted facts. Facts are defined here as statements that have a degree of universality (depending on the context). They are not reduced only to observable or scientific facts; here are some examples of less tangible facts: mathematical inferences; some historical facts for which there may not be direct evidence (e.g. the existence of a proto-language deduced from similarities in existing languages); a phenomenological fact that we experience agency; a spiritual fact that every culture transcends material reality in one way or another. Facts are not considered rock solid, though; they can be challenged, but they cannot be ignored. Therefore, if a statement contradicts commonly accepted facts, a valid justification needs to be provided. The Principle of Credulity may be relevant here: ‘… it is a sound principle of reasoning to suppose that things are as they seem to be, unless and until proved otherwise’ (Swinburne, 1991, p.145). Still, as there can never be a one to one correspondence between experience and its formulation, we can sometimes have multiple formulations that are all congruent. This is why other criteria are needed.
- Consistency means that individual statements that are part of the same explanatory structure should not be in conflict with each other. In other words, an interpretation must not contradict itself. Circumventing this criterion by resorting to an external justification that cannot be challenged is not considered valid. Arguing, for instance, that a higher state of consciousness transcends the contradictions within an explanation would not do because any challenge can be then dismissed by simply claiming that those who have made the challenge haven’t reached that higher state of consciousness. This is not to say that a higher state of consciousness cannot, in principle, transcend some seeming contradictions – only that it cannot be used as a way of doing away with these contradictions within an explanatory system that does not necessitates such a state.
- Completeness requires that an interpretation should be able to account for all the cases relevant to the subject. This does not mean that every detail needs to be addressed, but that no fact at the same level of interpretation can be ignored. ‘At the same level’ is a caveat implying that if an interpretation is general, it is not necessary to discuss some anomalies and aberrations that may be a result of specific circumstances or features. However, even small exceptions need to be taken into account if they cannot be explained at the lower interpretative levels. If this had not been the case in the past, we would not now have the theory of relativity or quantum physics. The criterion of completeness is important because without it, congruence and consistency can be achieved by simply excluding those phenomena that do not fit.
- Cohesiveness means that all the parts of an interpretation should be meaningfully connected. This implies that all its elements should relate to each other and are necessary. Nothing can be redundant; every part should have its place, purpose and function within the whole (it must affect the whole somehow). Cohesiveness can guard against contrived explanations and jumping to conclusions (when the path from the given premises is unclear). It can also compensate for not requiring material evidence to prove that something exists. Rather than asking for proofs, this criterion demands that something may be included only if doing so provides a more cohesive or more probable explanation than if it is not. For instance, the existence of unicorns cannot be refuted (only evidence for their existence can be). However, because there are no consequences that cannot be explained without involving unicorns, their existence can be considered irrelevant, and therefore unnecessary – until shown otherwise (note that, ‘I need to believe in unicorns to be happy’ only necessitates the belief in unicorns not their existence). Science and common sense already use this criterion. For example, the physical forces, energy, or even human thoughts are not self-evident, and their existence cannot be falsified. Still, they are widely accepted because they offer the best explanation for certain phenomena at the moment.
Expanding knowledge is achieved with interpersonal means (dialogue, discourse) that have been used systematically since Socrates, but were significantly refined in the 20th century (through the work of Buber, Bohm, Bakhtin, Gadamer and others).
 Which is why congruence can be an internal criterion.
 This is similar to Ockham’s razor: ‘entities should not be multiplied without necessity’. In other words, do not bring into an explanation what is unnecessary. The difference between these two is in a degree: cohesiveness allows the introduction of a new element if it makes an explanation more likely, even if it is not absolutely necessary. For example, a meaningful word made of pebbles could be the result of a random falling and rolling of the stones, but this is very unlikely. A far more plausible explanation requires a new factor that may not be otherwise present or detectable: somebody making the word from the stones.
The diagram below represents the above methods and their relations:
The following allegorical example may help in recognising the unique qualities of each of these methods, and how they can be combined. Let us imagine that four individuals come across a river, and each of them has a preference for one of these methods. The first person may attempt to experience the river directly. He may taste the water or even swim in it (immerse himself in it). The phenomenological method could assist in determining the extent to which such an experience has a universal value. The second person, in contrast, may stand on the bank and use, for instance, geometry to measure the width of the river, or bring some instruments to determine its chemical composition. The third person may sit by the river and try to merge with it on a non-material level, seeking the meaning of the river beyond her immediate experience. The fourth person, using reason, may try to conceptualise the river, probably by pacing up and down its banks and engaging into a dialogue with others in an attempt to see how their experiences can make rational sense. Now, we could imagine that one person can do all of the above. This, however, is not necessary, as long as those four do their work with integrity and are open-minded and willing to put their findings together.
On first sight, trying to synthesise a chemical analysis of water with a Siddhartha-like experience of the river may seem odd, but it is not impossible. The rest of these materials is an attempt to understand reality by doing just that. We will start with the question we consider central because it affects all the others: the meaning of life.