Open Inquiry

The biggest challenge in science, philosophy, and spirituality alike is to keep an open mind. This may sound simple and rather commonplace, to keep our inquiry open is amazingly difficult. We tend to identify with so many aspects of the world around us: not only the specific theories we grow up with, but the very concepts we use to deal with the every-day world. Freedom from identification may be the most valuable goal to strive for.

Our whole world of experience can be seen to hang together through a complex and heavily nested form of role play. For each object we encounter in daily life, both we and the object we deal with are playing particular roles. And any sense of solidity, objectivity, massiveness, and continuity or lack thereof, all of these are just that, particular forms of sense or meaning that we bestow on what appears, part of the roles that are being played.

This is not to deny the regularities we find around us, in our daily life as well as in scientific investigations. The only thing I deny is the solidity of the identifications and explanations we immediately hang around them. After all, a dream or a movie has its own intrinsic detailed forms of logic without thereby being `real' in any definitive sense. Similarly, predictability and repeatability of the phenomena in our life do not guarantee that our reality is thereby more solid than that of a dream.

Socratic Questioning

An early propoent of radical forms of open inquiry was Socrates. I find it fascinating that Socrates plays a double role in the history of European philosophy. On the one hand he is known as the one who started a quest for precise definitions and specifications. On the other hand he is also known for open-ended forms of inquiry, known to us now as Socractic questioning.

What did Socrates mean when he said that the un-examined life is not worth living? Did he want all of us to become masters of definitions? Or was his quest for definitions a form of smoke screen, an elaborate trick to get us to look beyond definitions and concepts altogether? I would argue for the latter interpretation, as I point out in a brief

I have tried to make a similar point when I was invited to answer the question that John Brockman posed to us in 2001 on his edge web site: What Questions Have Disappeared? My response was that we have lost a sense of wonder at the sheer appearance of the world, moment by moment, in my contribution:

Theory and Experiment

Science, philosophy, and religions all investigate the structure of reality. Each of these three approaches have their limits, and in that sense they are complementary. Science focuses on the purely objective side of reality, leaving out human values. Philosophy focuses on purely theoretical investigations, without offering an experimental approach. Religions differ greatly among each other in emphasis, with little attempt to find a universal common ground.

A serious personal exploration of reality, for a citizen of the modern world, can no longer be confined to one or two of these three fields. We need to combine the methodology of science, where theory and experiment are equally valued, with the universality of philosophy, and a commitment to an open investigation of all aspects of human experience, as is found in many contemplative religious practices.

I have written about my own quest to connect theory and experiment in the paper

  • In Search of Stepping Stones, by Hut, P. 2001, invited paper for the Sciences of the Human Person workshop, Paris, May 21-24, 2001, as part of the Science and the Spiritual Quest project.

The No-Limits Hypothesis

Exploring what it means to live in a freedom from identification implies that we start with the working hypothesis that there are ultimately no limits. Without denying the limitations inherent in any structure within the context of that structure, we can still question the universality of the structure itself. In mathematics this is very clear. Within a given number system, for example, certain operations are limited (we cannot define the square root of a negative number among the reals), but when we move to a more encompassing number system, the previous limits may be transcended (complex numbers do allow square roots of negative numbers to be taken).

Similarly in physics, we can question the validity of the limits imposed by relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Perhaps worm holes may some day give us a way to circumvent the seemingly rock-solid limits implied by the finite speed of light. And the limits we discern in quantum mechanics may be the reflection of the fact that we often still look at quantum mechanics through the glass of classical mechanics, assuming that there really is a classical phase space, onto which quantum mechanics imposes intrinsic limits to what we can measure. There may not be.

It is a sign of the relative maturity of the disciplines of mathematics and physics that it is possible to ask meaningful questions not only about what is known but also about the very limits to what might ever be knowable. For some recent initiatives in these kind of investigations, see my page on limits to scientific knowledge, and the article I wrote on this topic:

See also Science and Nature, by Hut, P. 2005, invited contribution to The World Question Center, on the edge web site,
and One Thing to Teach the World, by Hut, P. 2005, invited contribution to the spiked web site in answer to the question if you could teach the world just one thing about science, what would you choose and why?

A Personal Footnote

I will end here with a more personal reflection. My father, Jan Hut, died at age 90, on 11/11/2004. One month before, he had written a draft for a short newsletter, the first issue of what he had intended to become a more regular publication. He had meant to send it to a small group of friends and family members. In honor of his memory, I include here a copy of this newsletter, Magnalia. It is written in Dutch, and it expresses a love of inquiry which must have shaped my own inclinations in that direction from a very early age on.

Another formative influence for me was the warmth and humor of my mother, Jenneke Hut--Broek Roelofs. After my father's death, I collected his few remaining belongings in the small apartment were he lived during the last years of his life. To my happy surprise, I found a short letter that my mother wrote to my father, a few days before they first met in person, having been introduced by a common friend. I'm including it here, as a small token of appreciation for the way I was invited and raised in this world.