An experiment / performance drawing on the image of Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous paradox in quantum physics. The work is based on a comparative study of modern scientific methodology and the 2,500 year old Indian science of vipassana. It lasts for ten days during which time the artist remains sealed within a lightproof and soundproof chamber attempting to maintain continuous, detailed observation of all sensory phenomena.
This piece arises from the meeting of two images. One, from the world of physics, of Schrödinger’s cat. The other, from various contemplative traditions, of the hermit in a cell.
My aim is to show the connection between these two images, which at first seem world’s apart. In doing so I hope to point out a gap in current scientific practice. I would also like to suggest the shape of a possible future science - one which pays as much attention to our fears and desires as to our ideas.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should all shut ourselves away in boxes! My action is simply intended to flush some thoughts and feelings out into the open. The first ones to come are generally grotesque and lumbering, but I hope that eventually a subtler understanding follows.
You may well ask why someone should want to do something so extreme. Well, I want to demonstrate actual, practical commitment to an abstract, philosophical position. My intention is not to celebrate some sort of denial. I am not interested in the endurance of hardship for its own sake. Nor am I advocating sensory deprivation. On the contrary I want to fully engage the senses without the distractions by which they are usually muffled.
Closer and closer attention to the intricate detail of sensation leads to a progressive falling away of distractions. The more clear and undisturbed this focus can be, the more accurately can the actual nature of things be seen. This is deep science. It is a science in which the reactions and emotions of the scientist are as important as the object “out there”.
Conventional twenty first century science is just on the brink of this practice. Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist who first described his now famous cat in 1935. He was writing at a time in which alarming findings in quantum mechanics had led Einstein to declare stubbornly that “God does not play dice with the universe”. Schrödinger’s thought experiment was designed to illustrate the problem that the world appears to be quite different than we know it to be. Rationally we know, from the physics of fundamental particles, that there are no fixed objects, nothing can be measured beyond a certain degree of precision. There are only hazy probabilities. Our actual experience however is filled with solid objects and certainty. At what point does that certainty come about? The story of the cat is about that point.
The basic situation consists of a cat shut in a box with a vial of cyanide. (It should be stressed that this is a thought experiment. No “real” cat is harmed!) A small amount of radioactive material is left in the box which may or not decay within an hour. There is no way of saying just when the unstable atom will release its electron, only that it eventually will. If it does a Geiger counter clicks, a hammer is released, which breaks the vial, freeing the gas and killing the cat.
The problem is that outside the box there is no way of knowing whether or not this has happened. It is impossible to say whether the cat is dead or alive until the box is opened. According to all the physical calculations the cat is both dead and alive until the act of observation determines that it is one or the other. Alternatively, it could be said that it is neither alive nor dead until the act of looking somehow creates it. Or perhaps many, many diverging, meandering and parallel universes split off when the door is closed, populated by all the possible states of live and dead cat, of which ours is one.
However far down we go, even right down to the sub-atomic level, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly the moment when the fate of the cat is sealed. The ordinary world of our experience, by contrast, seems very clear and definite. It would seem, then, that the mind is radically implicated in the material world. This is quite a revelation when the world has so far been viewed as an object, to be analyzed and manipulated like a machine, quite separate from the disembodied spirit.
A science which includes consciousness as an integral part of nature, which feels what it studies, must surely have implications for our sense of ethical responsibility, environmental awareness and compassion. A science like this begins to look like religion or art.
But such names are less important than a practical method. The technique known as vipassana is another name for such a method. Traditionally taught to beginners over the course of ten days, it consists simply of calmly observing, without any trace of judgement or interference, phonemona of all kinds, as they arise from moment to moment.
This is what I will try to do.