How to Apply the Scientific Method to Self-Development?
As a scientist you try to expand knowledge by observation and/or logical reasoning. You use hypotheses to focus your efforts and apply principles such as Ozcam’s razor (the explanation requiring least assumptions is most likely to be right) to increase the odds of finding hidden patterns or meaning. So, how would it look if these principles are applied to developing oneself? Let’s start with a clarification of terminology.
As a starter, the scientific consensuses about what self is, surprisingly differs from the consensus of the self in self-development.
The field of psychology emerged in the late 19th century with Sigmund Freud as a one the founding fathers. While the field has branched in many directions since, one similarity between these schools of thought is found in the idea about who we are — the psyche. Besides some small research fields such as the school of meta-transpersonal psychology, psychology usually revolves around the idea of there being an autonomous individual. It’s an independent agent with free will, usually bound by beliefs that originated from misinterpretations of past events.
Subsequently, each field has its own approach to recondition this individual for it to fit in better into society and derive pleasure from this fit. The main distinction between schools is in their level of confrontation, ranging from a behaviorist approach that considers man as a machine to a humanist approach that distinguishes itself with compassion and nurturing of the individual. While the spectrum is wide, they all have a similar starting point. The one Descartes once captured with the phrase: “I think, therefore I am”.
Since the 1950s the field of neuroscience has been able to discover many patterns of the workings of our brain and nervous system. This led to a consensus on the nature of consciousness that is contrary to what is used as the premise in all major fields or psychology: there is no separate self.
For example the experiment of Benjamin Libet revealed that an unconscious electrical process could be registered before participants were conscious of a spontaneous act they would perform. In other words: decisions seem to precede our awareness of these decisions. Which begs the question “who made the decision?”.
This and other research added to the appearance of a model in which consciousness emerges from the complexity of our brains by means of a feedback loop. Backed by anthropological findings, it is taken to be most likely that about 70,000 years ago the evolution of the human brain produced a new self-reflexive cortex, the neo-cortex or human brain, which opened up the possibility for complex computation and cooperation. But it also had the downside that it would produce a self-image which can mistake itself for being a separate entity.
Eastern wisdom traditions show much similarity with the neuroscientific model, but point in the opposing direction in terms of self-development compared to the field of psychology in general.
The idea of consciousness being a feedback loop — an imaginary entity — fits seamlessly into the models of Eastern wisdom traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Yoga, (Zen) Buddhism and Taoism. These disciplines offer tools for waking up from the social conditioning of believing in being an autonomous individual by the respective societies they emerged in.
More interestingly, even a renowned psychologist such as Freud is recorded to hold a similar point of view, which he only preferred not to subdue for practical reasons. While he recognized that the ego — the sense of self — arose from the tension between libido and social standards, his approach to resolution was to find a balance between these two forces. He took the ego — which he did recognize as the source of all desires — for granted. However, at the same time he undeniably linked repression with neuroses, which implies a life without any would be impossible if one would be so unfortunate to have a libido that goes against any social standard.
The Eastern model, however, does see room for the apparent individual to see through the illusion of this belief of individuality without losing its ability to function without society. In the contrary, it would liberate to take on any role for the sheer fun of it.
In self-development there are basically two (opposing) directions: the path of self-improvement (or gaining control) or the path of self-acceptance (or letting go). Occam’s razor points you to the latter, while it could paradoxically imply you take the former.
You either believe in being a separate entity (or soul) or not. There is undeniably the experience of being an independent agent that makes decisions and acts with at least a certain degree of free will. However, science has not yet been able to locate the soul and neither does it fit well into for example evolution theory. In terms of biases, there is actually a very good explanation for why we are inclined not to follow up on the neuroscientific consensus (like many scientist do). You could say the burden of proof lies with those who claim individuality. And, that the position of “no-self” takes least assumptions. It actually requires no belief, it’s just the residue of not believing anything, taken as a starting point for further inquiry into the implications.
One such implication is that, while there may be a sense of doing, there is actually no doer. Any inclination that follows the dropping of identification with the mind and body is a right one, even the inclination to do something socially disapproved of or perhaps appearing weak. This letting go can be likened to a flow in which decisions seem to be made by themselves, for example when emerged into dancing.
Paradoxically, this also implies that when there is an inclination to improve oneself, or gain control over oneself or its environment, that this would be the path to follow. However, it would be self-improvement with the deeper intention of self-acceptance.
From logical reasoning you can only conclude that the best approach to self-development is to test the beliefs one truly holds.
Many scientific discoveries have come about from intuitive hunches formulated into hypotheses that were then tested. From experience I know that neither scientists nor regular people make their path of self-development into a learning curve by testing their own model of life, consciousness and satisfaction. As a results, they wander around or circle endlessly from method to method. I therefore suggest: be brave, set up your model of beliefs and try testing your personal hypotheses.