Are the intellectual and the spiritual really two separate ways of looking at the world? Or are they deeply interrelated—so much so that the relationship is difficult to see?
In considering that question, Dr. Neil Soten Theise looks to a fundamental building block of biology: the cell.
Theise recently presented a program titled "Science as Koan: Stem Cells, Complexity and the Science of Being" at the Zendo. The program is part of a new series of periodic lectures that will explore the links between science and Buddhist practice.
Theise is a stem cell researcher for the Departments of Pathology & Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Also a Zen practitioner at the Village Zendo, Theise opened his lecture by describing the traditionally dualistic ways of looking at the nature of reality: the cognitive, which represents our sensory perceptions and analytical thought processes, and the contemplative, a more "pre–scientific" approach that relies on quieting the mind to perceive reality.
"This is something people have been thinking about since people have been thinking," Theise said.
Our cognitive minds, drawing from the enhanced powers of observation provided to science by inventions such as microscopes and telescopes, describe a physical nature of reality—that germs cause disease, and that our galaxy is one of many in the universe, for example.
Our contemplative minds, on the other hand, draw on concepts such as the emptiness of inherent existence, interdependence, impermanence and karma to portray a spiritual reality.
While the two are not necessarily exclusive, "in this day and age most people tend to fall into one or the other if they're interested in exploring the nature of reality," Theise said.
Theise's own journey into these questions focused largely on stem cells. Theise outlined research he and several colleagues, including Diane S. Krause of Yale University, did to determine the nature and role of stem cells in the human body.
Stem cells are cells within the human body that have the potential to become any of the body's tissues. They are the source of skin and bone, liver and pancreas, brain and nerves.
Traditionally, embryonic stem cells were highly valued because they were thought to be the only cells with "plasticity," the ability to become any tissue. Scientific thought said that once an embryonic stem cell had started on its journey to becoming one organ or another, it couldn't go back to a plastic state and become another organ entirely.
The research by Theise and his colleagues, however, turned that dogma on its ear. They showed that adult stem cells taken from bone marrow could become any organ or body tissue, as well.
"Adult cells can be as plastic as embryonic stem cells," Theise said.
And not only that, but cells that had already become skin, or liver, or blood, were flexible enough to become the basis for entirely different organs. Hence the cloning of a single cell to create Dolly, a living sheep.
"So it turns out cells can do anything," Theise said.
In trying to determine how cells determine which paths to take and what to become, Theise began considering a concept called "emergent self–organization," which says that interacting components can organize themselves into larger structures that appear planned. Ant colonies, for example, appear very organized, as if taking direction from the queen—but in reality they organize from the bottom up, merely supporting the queen as she reproduces.
To self–organize, societies must meet four criteria: They must have sufficient numbers, negative feedback loops (allowing them to adjust away from one behavior or another), local interactions with no sense of the global whole, and a low level of random behavior.
Such complex adaptive systems operate on a fine line between order and chaos, and they inevitably crash.
"What makes us alive is that we are complex adaptive systems," Theise said. And thus, death is inescapable.
"If in fact what makes it adaptive is going to kill it, then you can't separate life from death. If you want to be alive, you will die."
Perceptions of these organized structures depend largely on scale, he said. For example, many people consider cells to be the fundamental building blocks of larger organisms. But there are subcellular molecules that constitute cells, and those molecules are made of atoms, and atoms of subatomic particles. Components even smaller than those—such as strings—may arise from a "quantum foam" of mathematically and linguistically indefinable ingredients.
Restricting ourselves to measurable reality, based on scales we can perceive, may discount other phenomena—like acupuncture—that doesn't fit that scale, he said.
What this all means—and here's where the Buddhism becomes more apparent—is that our intellectual and spiritual realities really aren't separate at all.
If measurable reality is dependent on scale, that's what's meant by the Buddhist "emptiness of inherent existence." If complex systems inevitably crash, that proves impermanence. If systems arise and self–organize under the proper conditions, they are necessarily interdependent. And if the emergence of a system is predictable, no one knows exactly how it will happen—the mysterious cause–and–effect of karmic law.
"We don't live in the Universe. The Universe is this infinite, indefinable substance out of which we arise in a self–organizing fashion," Theise said. "We don't live in the Universe. We are the Universe."