Psychology as a science of the inner domain

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 26 February 2024

section 3
Learning from physics

Watching the stars

When you go out at night and watch the stars in one of the few places where the artificial lights of our cities haven't blotted them out, and if you have the patience to watch the unimaginably large number of stars move slowly and gracefully around the exact spot where you stand, it becomes crystal clear why our ancestors thought that we humans happen to live right in the centre of the universe. Visually and viscerally, it is completely convincing that not only the sun, but even the stars, the moon and all the planets turn in their daily orbits around the exact spot where we happen to live.

We moderns know now that it only looks like this because we live on a globe which turns around its own axis while moving around the sun like the sun's other planets. But still, even now, four long centuries after Copernicus and Galileo made their discoveries, it still looks as if the sun and stars are rising in the East and there is still no way we can feel that it is actually us who tumble forward.

Getting this right was an absolutely crucial condition for physics to develop at its present rate. Till the mental acrobatics of Copernicus made us visualise the solar system the way we now do, physics and mathematics made not much sense, since even the most systematic, orderly movements in nature, those of the stars, the planets, the moon and the sun, had to be calculated by ad hoc methods that never gave more than approximate results. Only after we gave up on the geo-centric concept of the universe, it became possible to formulate universal laws of gravitation that were easy to calculate and exact in their results. Once we had simplified and systematised astronomy, we could use these same simple laws to describe not only the heavens, but also what happens on earth and in the next step we learned to use this knowledge to create entirely new things. Suddenly we could design bridges that were longer and buildings that were higher than anything people had ever built before and trust that they would stand as long as they obeyed the newly found laws of physics. It gave us the courage to use the same approach to steam, electricity and electromagnetism which till then had been too rare and magical to even start thinking about. And if we had not developed a practicable understanding of electricity and electro-magnetism, absolutely nothing of our modern technology would have come into existence.

Centuries of observations and a few very clever people

Strange enough, the incredibly effective collaboration between the simple observation of nature, mathematics, experimental physics and technology which made the fast cumulative progress in the hard sciences possible appears to have been triggered by only one relatively inconspicuous anomaly. Amongst the zillions of stars that seem to circle around the earth in perfect order, five misbehave. At first sight these "planets", for that is what they are, look only a tiny bit different from the regular stars — they don't flicker — but when one observes them over longer periods — and our ancestors had plenty of free evenings to watch the sky — one notices that their orbits are out of sink with the other stars: sometimes they seem to move faster, sometimes slower, sometimes they stand almost still for extended periods of time, and even more peculiar, each of them has an entirely unique rhythm all its own. Copernicus realised that their seemingly unruly behaviour can be explained by making three assumptions and then describe the result in the language of mathematics. The first assumption was that they turn around the sun and not around the earth; the second that each one of them does so at a different distance from the sun and at a different but constant speed; the third, and this is the crucial one, that the earth itself is one of these planets and circles around the sun like the others. The first two assumptions taken together, produce a model of the solar system that is simple, elegant and easy to describe and predict mathematically. The third one makes clear why the movements of the other planets look irregular to us: since we have no sense organ for constant speed, we think we are the stable, unmoving centre of the universe while we actually move around the sun like the others, and it is because the point from where we see them changes that their movements look irregular. In reality they move around in a way that is fully systematic and perfectly predictable.1

When Copernicus developed his somewhat far-fetched, yet elegant mathematical model of' the solar system, it was treated initially as an intellectual curiosity which was used only to predict the position of the planets, something the Roman Catholic Church needed to decide the astrologically correct dates for certain religious festivals. A second development was needed before it began to be taken seriously as a radical change in our human way of understanding the physical universe. Roughly 60 years after Copernicus made his discoveries, Galileo made a tiny telescope which showed that Jupiter had moons circling around it in a similar fashion as Copernicus had argued that the planets move around the sun. It was this that gave those who saw it, a direct visual confirmation of Copernicus' ideas, and changed these ideas from an abstract theory into a believable description of reality.

In the endless stream of scientific discoveries that followed, sometimes the maths came first and the instrumental demonstration came later, sometimes it was the other way around, but the two, very different but complimentary approaches went on reinforcing each other.

Four crucial factors

When we look at this story as a whole, we can distinguish several factors that together enabled the revolutionary change in our understanding of the physical universe that began in the 16th century. The reason to ask attention for them here is that these same factors might well be capable of letting psychology make the same kind of quick cumulative progress. We'll have a quick look at them here and a more detailed one later in the chapters on knowledge.2

Respecting anomalies

The first factor is almost too embarrassing to mention, but it is perhaps the most important one. Science must follow the data, and if things are happening that don't fit in the scientific worldview, that worldview is in need of adjustment. What is more, the more "anomalous" the data appear, the more radical will be the revolution needed to correct the theory. In the story about the early days of modern astronomy there was only one anomaly, and it was actually only a small one: the seemingly irregular movement of the planets. In psychology there are many, and they are far more serious since they seem to indicate that the very stuff of which the world is made may be very different — and far more deeply interconnected and meaningful — than what mainstream science presently assumes. A typical example of an anomalous phenomenon in the domain of psychology is telepathy in which someone is aware of what someone else feels or thinks while there is no known mode of physical contact between the two. There is considerable and extremely solid research on telepathy — even though not remotely as much as its importance warrants — and I don't think its existence can be reasonably doubted. Another one, more rare and difficult to research systematically, consists of predictive dreams and other visions of the future that are more detailed and accurate than explainable on the basis of what any human being knows at the time of the dream or the vision. There are many other "anomalous phenomena" that seem to indicate the existence of stuff, forces and even beings that cannot be detected by any presently known physical instruments, but that some of us can at least to some degree ascertain, and that seem to be as real and semi-independently existing as the physical world.3 While a small number of individual scientists have attempted to study them, science as a whole hasn't bothered, and as yet there is no consensus on a sufficiently inclusive understanding of reality in which these things can find their natural place.

Making instruments

A second factor that in the story about astronomy turns up only at the very end but that in other scientific discoveries comes up right at the beginning, is the construction of instruments. A large part of the success of the hard sciences can be attributed to their ability to build instruments that increase the detail and the reliability of their observations. This did not happen in Psychology, or at least not sufficiently. The early introspectionists realised they needed to train those who were tasked with looking inside to see how their minds worked, but they did not know enough about the human mind to turn it into a reliable instrument for the study of the inner domain. As a result psychology gave up on expert introspection and instead of studying the inner realities directly, it limited itself to the study of behaviour and later to what representative populations of ordinary people report about what they feel and think. As should have been clear from the beginning, this has stood squarely in the way of quick progress in psychology. Medicine would have got nowhere if it had relied exclusively on what patients tell about their own bodies arguing that they know best about what goes on inside themselves. Neither would astronomy have made any progress if it would have discarded its telescopes arguing that the only sky that matters is the one ordinary people can see during their evening walk. Both sciences have progressed through the creation of highly sophisticated processes and instruments that can reach far below the surface that "ordinary people" have access to. Mainstream psychology as an academic discipline has, till now, hardly managed to do this. Strangely, it has accepted that human nature can be trained for specialist, professional action in a wide range of other fields, right from sports to psychotherapy and leadership,4 but with the exception of the relatively small school of Phenomenology, psychology has not yet sufficiently looked at human nature as a potentially fit instrument for the sophisticated, professional study of the inner domain.

The Indian knowledge systems have done that and, as we at the end of the previous section, have developed a deeper theoretical understanding as well as a wealth of practical know-how of the type that is needed to take this kind of knowledge further by turning our human nature into a reliable and precise "inner instrument of knowledge", antaḥkaraṇa, for the study of the inner domain. That the early psychologists in the beginning of last century were not sufficiently aware of this — or even when they were aware of it were not yet ready to use it — is to some extent understandable. The mindset of colonialism and Western superiority was still rampant, even in academia, but that science, which in other fields has become a truly global enterprise, even now, more than 75 years after India's political independence, still doesn't make use of the methods India developed to study the inner domain is plain inexcusable. We'll take them up in the second chapter on Knowledge and as we will see there, the methods the Indian systems have used are logically coherent and should allow us with suficient training to turn our own human nature into the reliable and precise instruments psychology needs.

To summarise, physicists study the physical reality they want to explore themselves and as such are in a position to improve the instruments they use for their studies. Psychologists don't do that. In their attempt at remaining "objective", psychologists don't study the inner domain directly. Instead, they study intermediary processes that represent the inner domain within the outer physical one. As a result, mainstream psychological research limits itself to the study of behaviour, neurology, and what other people report about themselves. The relation between the first two and the inner domain is far from straightforward and studying physical behaviour and the neurological correlates of inner processes more and more precisely does not necessarily help to develop a better understanding of what happens in the inner domain itself. As for the third type of studies, they are impaired by the fact that most people are aware of only of a tiny fraction of all that happens inside of them. So here too, however sophisticated the statistical analysis of the data may be, the end-result is unlikely to give an accurate picture of what happens inside. What we suggest is that instead of all this, psychology should study the inner domain directly, take a step back, have a serious look at the possibility of turning our own human natures into fit instruments, and make full use of what the Indian knowledge systems have already achieved in this area.

Refining intuition

The next factor that has played a major role in the progress of the hard sciences is mathematics. And once again, just as there is little use for physical instruments in psychology, there doesn't appear to be much use for mathematics in the study of the inner domain.5 Ideas, thoughts, feelings, intents are not physical things, and just as they cannot be measured with physical instruments, they don't lend themselves to mathematical modeling either. But, just as it is possible to build powerful inner instruments to observe inner, psychological processes reliably in ever greater detail, so also there actually does exist an inner equivalent for mathematics.

The first thing needed to understand how this works, is to realise that mathematics is ultimately based on intuition. For outsiders, it may not be immediately obvious that mathematics is intuition-based, but the truth or otherwise of mathematical axioms, conjectures, rules of deduction and proof is not established on the basis of the perception of physical phenomena, but on an inner, intuitive sense of what is right, correct, and — interestingly — "elegant". That mathematical formulas and procedures are so precisely formulated, fixed and rule-based is because the physical domain it deals with is like that. The physical domain is in its very nature fixed, rule-based and precisely defined, and so is the intuition that describes it. The inner realms that psychology deals with are much less so, they are more fluid and may appear in first instance less "substantial", and the same is true for the intuition that deals with that domain. But still, at its best, intuition in the inner realms is no less precise and accurate than in the domain of physics, while it covers a far larger territory that is in many ways more important to our human lives. If we could harness this intuition without distorting it, it would be hard to put limits to what it could achieve. But as anyone knows who has tried, doing so is not particularly easy. And so, in psychology as an academic science, we will need to combine it, just as in physics, with accurate observations that are aided by instrumentation, and as we saw above, in psychology the instrumentation will have to be developed inside our own human nature.

Just as with the "inner instruments of knowledge", we'll discuss how psychology could develop intuition more systematically in the chapters on knowledge and research.

Rigorous curiosity

The final factor I would like to mention here could perhaps best be summarised as "intellectual rectitude" or even more simply, as "rigorous curiosity". The core of this final factor is not procedural or technical, but the need for a whole range of attitudinal qualities, a combination of aspiration for truth, sincerity, honesty, humility, courage and flexibility, openness, the right balance between faith and critical thinking, eagerness and patience, mental clarity and practical diligence, clarity about one's own individuality as well as about one's oneness with others and the creation as a whole, the list is long.

There are some specifics as well. In the story about astronomy it became clear for example how crucial it is to take the place from where one looks at reality into account. Unfortunately, finding our position as centres of consciousness within the wider world of consciousness requires different ways of acquiring knowledge and different types of instruments than those which are needed for the outer physical domain. Moreover, to use them well, and to develop them further, requires not only a change in what we know intellectually, but also a change in our sense of who we are and how we stand in the world, and all these changes are complex and take time. But still it needs to be done and in psychology this is far more important than in physics because the place from where we look at reality not only changes what we see, but even what is actually happening. There is an observer effect even in physics, but it is limited and how we measure rainfall is unlikely to affect the amount of rain that actually falls. The observer effect in psychology is far more pronounced: how and from where we observe our own anger for example is almost certain to have a decisive effect on how that anger plays out. it may be clear that if we would understand better how this works, we could develop more precise and reliable "inner instruments" for observing inner processes, as well as more effective ways of changing these processes.

Asking for trouble

For science to trust and develop different ways of acquiring knowledge and to use inner, "blatantly subjective", psychological instruments to assess their trustworthiness is clearly inviting trouble, and for many in the scientific community it will be entirely out of the question. The knowledge which physics provides is (for those who are into it and good at it) perfectly clear and unambiguous: it is stated entirely in explicit terms, and it can be formulated precisely in the language of mathematics which is (again for those who understand it) clean and straightforward. With the possible exception of the quantum domain, the physical instruments used in physics tend to indicate with perfect clarity whether physical events take place or not, and even when something is unsure, undefined or chance-driven, its probability can still be precisely measured and numerically defined. So why change instruments and methods of enquiry that work so well?

The reason we still need to do it in spite of all the difficulties this effort is bound to encounter is however simple and clear: the methods of enquiry that physics developed do work, to some extent, for our outer behaviour, but if we want to know who we are, what we are, how we function, and what our lives are about, they are insufficient. Whether we like it or not, the ways of acquiring knowledge that are needed for the inner domain are radically different from those that work best for the physical domain, and so are the methods and the instruments needed to take inner knowledge further. Ideas, thoughts, feelings, intents are not physical things, and while one can measure their physical correlates and the verbal tokens humans use to describe them, they themselves have a different nature, follow different laws, resist physical measurement and mathematical description, and so they cannot be researched using the ways of acquiring knowledge and the type of instruments the hard sciences use. The only way to assess them directly and professionally is by looking or "going" inside, and the only way to make their assessment more precise and reliable is to use a sophisticated "technology of consciousness" to turn our own human nature into a more precise and reliable inner instrument of knowledge (antaḥkaraṇa).

Help at hand

Fortunately there are several factors that will help in making this new approach to psychology doable. The first consists of all the things the sciences of the outer and inner domains have in common. A major common element is, for example, that while different people appear to have a different innate capacity for and interest in these two ways of acquiring knowledge, this capacity can be developed in everybody, even if to a different degree. Moreover, in this development, the same factors are needed to make it work: personal effort, awareness of already existing knowledge, and guidance by a good teacher all contribute. Another common element is that even though some of the teaching methods will have to change to encourage learning in the inner domain, much of the administrative, organisational structure of the educational system could remain the same. The age-based shift from a stress on basic pedagogy, via initial intellectual training and practical skills, to higher learning and research might for example work for both streams.

A very different factor that will help in the development of psychology as a second fundamental science is something the hard sciences are not used to, since they have gone in their field so far beyond all other available knowledge systems. It is that academic psychology can learn from other sophisticated knowledge systems not only what they have found, but also their methods of enquiry and their basic assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge. As suggested before, and as we will discuss later in more detail, this may well be the main ingredient that will make it possible to establish psychology as a second fundamental science and with that make science worthy of its role as the main go-to knowledge system supporting humanity's first truly global civilisation.

The next step

As we saw in the previous section, the largest, and in all likelihood the most profound of these alternate knowledge systems can be found in the Indian civilisation which has focused on the inner domain for millennia. What mainstream psychology has learned from India till now is limited to a few simplified exercises for physical and psychological health and comfort, but what we suggest here is to focus on the underlying philosophy, the detailed theories, and the "technology of consciousness" that gave rise to these exercises. It is these that may help psychology to take off as an effective science of the inner domain which can help humanity to understand itself better, find more happiness, and live more in harmony with itself and the rest of nature.

So this is what we will look at next, and in the following chapter we'll have a quick overview of the main areas in which science can expect to gain from the knowledge systems that developed as part of the Indian civilisation.



1The relevance of this third point for psychology may be clear: we simply can not judge other people correctly as long as we are not fully aware of the distortions introduced by the peculiarities of our own perspective. We'll come back to this later.

2There have been many attempts at classifying these factors in the past, and I'm aware that the choice I've made here is somewhat arbitrary. The following paragraphs are mainly intended to indicate the basic direction in which I feel they need to be adjusted to work optimally for the inner domain.

3"Semi-independent" since the world-as-we-know-it is intrinsically a joint product of us as subjects and the known objective world. We'll come back to this in the introduction of the chapter on consciousness.

4It is widely accepted for example that psychotherapists and psychological counsellors need to undergo extensive psychotherapy themselves before they can work independently with others. But again, what exactly they learn during this period of self-enquiry does not necessarily feed back into the collective knowledge base that is taught at universities.

5There are several obvious exceptions. In the early days of psychology extensive use was made of physical instruments in the study of perception. But the kind of sense-based perception that was studied at the time took place at the interface between the perceived physical domain and the perceiving inner domain, and the physical instruments were all created to standardise what happened at the physical side. A second exception consists of the instrumentation which is used for the study of the nervous system, but these instruments measure the physical correlates of mental processes, not the mental processes themselves and as we mentioned earlier, how these two relate is still very far from settled. A third exception is statistics which is used extensively in mainstream psychology, but its use is hampered in psychology by the poor quality of the underlying data.