Western Buddhism and Science

This week’s amazingly close yet opposing posts by Jayarava and the Zennist reminded me of the amazing abundance and diversity of Western Buddhist’s views regarding science.

First (actually late last week), Jayarava wrote “On Credulity,” expressing a bit of amazement that educated people today still believe in the mystical qualities of crop circles, psychics, and chiropractors - all of which seem to have the same level of scientific veracity: zero. Jayarava writes that for instance:

In 1986 Randi exposed Peter Popoff as the same kind of fraud on Johnny Carsons’s Tonight show, but he is back with a vengeance fleecing the credulous and making tens of millions of dollars doing it.

The message seems to be that people want to believe. They want to believe in spirits, in immaterial beings and gods, in mysterious energies, in crystal vibrations, in psychic powers. People want to believe in magic.

But, he warns, this leads to all kinds of self-deception. It can even be fatal. On the other side of this magical thinking he promotes science, which I think he is quite right in arguing that while it is opposed to magical thinking, science is not opposed to meaning.

On the other hand, the Zennist writes in “My rant on the West:”

The ‘West’, if we think of it as representing the vanguard of science that brings us facts, not assumptions or fantasies, has brought us little in the way of real or reliable facts when it comes to certain important matters such as health.  (I would like to get into cosmology but that is too long of a subject.  Suffice it to say the Big Bang is bullshit.)  Even today, we don’t really know the cause of cancer or heart disease or why males are far more likely to suffer from autism than females.

While the Zennist doesn’t mention Jayarava directly, one does get the feeling that he is responding to Jayarava’s post. Yet I also think that one can be sympathetic to the Zennist’s concerns about scientism (as opposed to science),  without falling into magical thinking. So perhaps these two can be brought into some sort of agreement on things. That would require clearly delineating the epistemological edges of science and scientism, as the Zennist suggests:

Right now the West is the defender of the dogma of Scientism, that is, the omnipotence of the physical sciences, all of which rest completely on sensory consciousness and sensory experience. But even granting the West to be the upholder of reason, reason can know nothing purely of itself, according to Kant. The limit of seonsory experience cannot go beyond the conditioned, either.

I think Alan Wallace did a good job of unpacking the philosophical history of Scientism in “The Taboo of Subjectivity” several years back. In fact, I think very few people would defend clear-cut scientism (and I don’t think Jayarava hints at being one of those himself). In the philosophy of mind, the Hard Problem of qualia represent a sort of stopping point at our ability to claim omnipotence through science. Just as in so much Buddhist analysis of the mind and experience, this “problem” for Western would-be (or actual) materialists tells us that our every experience of the material world is in fact merely a compound of subjective mental states. Needless to say, many good arguments have been made to solve the Hard Problem, but none has gained widespread support as of yet.

I studied philosophy of mind in my undergrad in philosophy, looked into Buddhist philosophies of mind later for a religious studies conference, and then did more – focusing on Bohmian Quantum Mechanics, the theoretical side, not the mathematical – during my stint as a grad student in philosophy. My experience in all of that work can be summed up no better than (borrowing shamelessly from Jayarava), as Richard Feynman said:

“Science—knowledge—only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” [Feynman. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. BBC]

Well, one thing it might have subtracted was a youthful sense of knowing it all :)

  • http://zenharvests.blogspot.com/ nathan

    Both of those guys seem so damned stubbornly attached to their way of seeing things. But they sure do offer a nice point-counterpoint in the comments you highlighted above.

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    Hi Justin,

    Interesting contrast. I think this made up term “Scientism” is funny. Zennist is reluctant to admit science has any value because the method has not yet solved all the problems in the world. Buddhism as a whole has had 2500 years to solve all our problems, and has all-powerful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas working 24/7 to save beings. Science like Buddhism is a process, and has made remarkable progress since the first scientists of the Enlightenment period. If only Buddhism had made as much progress in the same time period, eh?

    No, we don’t know everything about the natural world yet, and perhaps we never will, but I note that Zennist wrote his critique on a computer and posted on the Internet with no apparent irony. I’ve seen so many attacks on science written on computers and posted on the internet with no apparent irony that I no longer find the hypocrisy very surprising. So much of scientific progress is taken for granted these days.

    The Big Bang is not “bullshit” it is a first approximation and one that has so far been the only plausible explanation of the observation that all galaxies we can see are moving away from us, in light of what we know about gravity. Since it was first proposed in the 1920s by Edwin Hubble, scientists have been trying to prove the theory wrong. It was one of them, Fred Hoyle, that came up with the joke name “Big Bang” in 1949, but, like the criticism of Schrödinger, the joke was assimilated. No doubt we will soon have a new theory, but indications are that it will be far less comprehensible than Quantum Mechanics presently is (if Stephen Hawking is right).

    Zennist is rather absolute about science, in the way that religious people often are. Scientists work with theories, hypotheses, margins of error, approximations, and developing the ability to make predictions which can be tested. The very best scientists are always hoping to make a name for themselves by proving the prevailing view wrong. Zennist caricatures scientists as fundamentalists interested in absolute knowledge, but I would say that it’s Buddhists who seek absolute knowledge, not scientists.

    While Zennist rejects the metaphysics of the west he none-the-less references Kant whose metaphysics underpin the practice of science, again without apparent irony. This highlights the fact that the Western intellectual tradition has maintained it’s own critique of itself over millennia and that, unlike religious dogmas, the secular dogmas have been constantly updated since Heraclitus (except that everyone since Heraclitus has accepted that everything changes). In fact the West’s critique of itself is more useful on the whole than the Buddhist critique of the West – because at least Western intellectuals are prepared to admit that their beliefs are metaphysical, whereas we Buddhists insist that our metaphysical views are in fact Reality. Zennist too is arguing from this Reality belief, which in reality is just a belief.

    As to my own metaphysical beliefs, I would not use the neologism “Scientism” since it was invented as a polemic, and generally misrepresents those who apply the scientific method. But I did train in the sciences. I believe that experience only makes sense if the objects of the senses are independent of us, i.e. I’m a Transcendental Realist (of a sort). Through repeated observation we find patterns in nature, that enable us to make useful predictions. The kinds of observations we are able to make have grown exponentially since the Enlightenment and now include glimpses into the workings of the mind. This is very exciting stuff for anyone interested in the mind, and who thinks of the mind as part of the natural world. I believe that Buddhists also use observations of patterns to make progress and that Buddhism is empirical to this extent (though I don’t go as far with this as David Kalupahana and don’t agree that the Buddha was either a Logical Positivist, or an Empiricist in the mould of Hume).

    Of course many Buddhists do not consider the mind to be part of the natural world, and this in part underlies the rejection of science. That and the baleful influence of Romanticism on us, especially, according to David McMahan, over the Zen schools which have a strong tendency towards Idealism anyway. I believe that the Buddha was not interested in metaphysics, even though some of his ideas have metaphysical implications. I believe the Buddha was always and only talking about experience. I’m implying this from scripture, but have discussed it with historians, linguists, anthropologists and most crucially with people who’s lives revolve around their meditation practice. Additionally it is the only way to make sense of statements such as we find in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S ii.16) and the Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7) that neither ‘existence’ (atthi/bhava) nor non-existence (natthi/abhava) are applicable to the world (loka). Of course, and this was the point of my post on credulity, some people prefer non-sense to sense.

    If I may I’d like to direct people to my blog on conjecture and refutation because it gives an accurate picture of what science is these days, how scientists actually work, and how scientific knowledge progresses without any implicit or explicit teleology (unlike Buddhism). It’s a better place to start from if we’re going to have a conversation about the relative merits of people who employ the method of science versus the people who employ the methods of Buddhism. Though some of us are quite happy to do both.


    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Jayarava,

      Thanks for the detailed reply. I agree that Scientism is an odd term and most likely polemical. I don’t hear many people claiming to be Scientismists :) The idea traces back through the Positivists (a la Comte) and then Logical Empiricists (Vienna Circle), but the hope that all truth claims could be reduced to science never panned out and the main Vienna folks, Karnap and Hemple, admitted as much and went on with life.

      I’m sure ‘some people’ still hold this view, but no one that I know of.

      What the Zennist might have been up to, and I would be more sympathetic toward, is the idea that ‘some [other] people’ tend to place too much faith in current trends in science. For example, in the US, I would say that there is a massive over-reliance on pills in medical practice for things that could/should be treated with lifestyle changes. Perhaps even the same type of people who are getting duped here by crop circles here in the UK are the ones being fed fist-fulls of pills in the US.

      It used to be an ongoing joke that you should stock up on chocolate any time a study came out showing it to be good for you because invariably within a week or two another one would come out saying it’s bad for you. Butter, wine, salt, all once villains of medical science, have made comebacks of sorts in one way or another.

      While it’s good to have all of these studies available, it does, I think, tend to confuse people. Confusion opens the door to quackery.

      On the other hand, Buddhism, which has only deteriorated (according to tradition) over the last 2500 years, seems to still help people. Of course, on whole, I do think science/material advance has done more than any religion for improving the lives of people, but this opens lots of ‘cans of worms’ for argument that I won’t get into here.

      I agree regarding the Big Bang. As it was a parenthetical in the Zennist’s piece, I won’t worry about it too much though.

      Regarding the Buddha always/only talking about experience – I would wonder though about his interactions with kings/lay people and even many with monks. I agree (following Sue Hamilton) that many of his sophisticated doctrines are about experience, but I don’t know if this can be generalized out to other audiences that might have held a naive realist understanding of the world (e.g. “that rock is a rock” as opposed to the more sophisticated “that rock is a collection of sensory input meeting my eye faculty to form the impression of a rock”).

      And McMahan I read and liked a lot, but I am also skeptical about extrapolating his examples out to (Western) Zen or other Buddhism more broadly. I just watched the latest biographical film on Chogyam Trungpa, for instance, and it showed that he was interested in and influenced by *everything* in the West. He ate it up, and expressed bits of all of it in his teachings. McMahan picks up a couple of these, but fails to mention the rest, which to my mind might falsely overemphasize the influences that McMahan choose to focus on.

      I see Buddhism as being incredibly multifaceted from the beginning, including having many Idealist strains of thought (Dhammapada verse 1, for instance), and stories of miracles, and also very human things like the Buddha getting sick and dying. Perhaps its beauty and power is that it allows us each to refashion it, somewhat in our own image, whilst perhaps ‘indoctrinating’ us in some positive ideals such as compassion, generosity, and wisdom.



      • Mikels Skele

        So science is suspect because it has failed to be all things to all people, while Buddhism is superior because it “still helps some people?” Why demand so much of the “other,” and almost nothing from the beloved?

  • http://www.kerrie-redgate.com Kerrie Redgate

    The miracle of the human being is that Relative and Absolute Reality co-exist within the human Mind. Science focuses more on Relative Reality while Spiritual Experience (via religious processes & ritual) focuses more on Absolute Reality. The senses are finite in their capacities. The Mind is not. Siddhartha was an astute genius, especially for His time. We’re only scratching at the surface.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Good points, Kerrie. Thanks for dropping by :)

  • Don Salmon

    Regarding James Randi, a lawyer has been offering, for several years, a million dollars to anybody who can prove that Randi’s challenge is legitimate. So far, no takers.

    • Mikels Skele

      Hmm.. Details?