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The Domains of Spirituality, Psychotherapy, and Science: The Real, the Actual, and the Empirical

Updated: Jun 9, 2019


This post explains Roy Bhaskar's concept the domains of reality: the real, the actual, and the empirical [1]. These domains help explain the values and limitations of science, spirituality, and applied modalities [2], such as psychotherapy or meditation. This post introduces the concept of the domains. This lays the groundwork for future posts, where I will talk more about their applications to my work.

This diagram shows the nested relationship of the domains. The domains are described in further detail below:




The Real

The real represents the true underlying mechanisms or causes by which the universe operates, as well as what actually happens as a result of those mechanisms or causes—in other words, all that is.

The totality of the real cannot be directly observed or experienced, only inferred from our empirical experience of what actually happens.

Examples [3]:

  • The laws of physics

  • Nonduality

  • The mystery of life

  • Metaphysics

  • The soul

  • Divine will

  • The nature of Spirit

Applications:

  • Religion

  • Spirituality

  • Theoretical physics

The Actual

The actual represents the ways in which the real occurs in time and space—that is to say, what actually happens.

The actual is how the real is manifested, but it is never the fullness or totality of the real. Not everything that is actual is observed.

Examples [3]:

  • The creation of a solution by mixing sugar with water

  • A dog wagging its tail

  • All the ways particles and energy are in motion in a particular moment in time

  • The act of prayer

Applications:

  • Somatic psychology

  • Humanistic psychotherapies

  • Mindfulness-oriented practices—e.g., meditation and yoga

  • Playing sports

  • Flow-like, in-the-moment states of consciousness

  • Praxis

The Empirical

The empirical represents the observation or evaluation of the actual: what we see, hear, and experience.

We can only experience the portion of the actual that our observational tools (e.g., senses or instruments) will allow. There are portions of the actual, and consequently the real that cannot be directly experienced.

Examples [3]:

  • The taste of food

  • The feeling of sadness

  • A scientific observation

  • A mathematical proof

  • A spiritual or transcendent experience

Applications:

  • Ordinary sense experience

  • Hard sciences

  • Mathematics

  • Cognitive and behavioral psychology

  • Psychological testing

  • Law and the legal system

The Example of the Rainbow

Each higher domain reveals only a portion of the structure of its underlying domain. Consider the example of a rainbow. It is common knowledge that when we humans look at a rainbow, we can only see a portion of the colors that actually exist. We cannot see infrared or ultraviolet, even though we know they are there. Our perception of color represents the empirical, and the full spectrum of color is the actual. Beyond that, there are forces and laws that are causing the actual colors to exist in the first place. We do not fully know all of the mechanisms and underlying causes that make a rainbow possible [4]. That is the part of the real that is not actual or empirical.

Notes:

1. My description of the domains of reality (properly called ontological domains) is mainly adapted from the book Enlightened Common Sense: The Philosophy of Critical Realism, by Roy Bhaskar. Bhaskar (1944-2014) was a philosopher and "meta-theorist" who made deeply valuable contributions to the efforts to bridge the gaps between science, social discourse, and religion.

2. The overall term for applied modalities is praxis.

3. The examples listed in the table are knowledge areas that are unique to the associated domain. Each deeper structure also includes the higher level structures. So, all the examples listed under the empirical would also be included in the actual, and the examples listed under the actual would also be included in the real. See the diagram to get a better picture of this relationship.

4. Of course, we know a lot of the mechanisms that cause rainbows, but consider how the explanation of these mechanisms has evolved over time. Judeo-Christian myth holds that rainbows exist because of a covenant with God. Australian aboriginal myth holds that rainbows represent the serpent or snake that created the world. Newtonian physics describes rainbows as refractions of light through water vapor. Quantum physics describes this process in terms of subatomic particles. But there are still many unknowns at the fundamental levels of physics and the underlying structures of reality.


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