Science & Buddhism

I just received this in the mail. I asked the author, Dr David Andersen for permission to post it here, and he generously allowed this. It is a rejoinder to comments I made about the relationship between science and Buddhism in my 2006 book Zen Master Who: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen. I thought he fairly summarized my position and offered a critique of it. My only caveat is I’m pretty sure I didn’t juxtapose secular and orthodox, but rather liberal and traditional, secular being a subset of liberal. And, that I thought the view I expressed was common among Buddhists of all stripes. That very small quibble aside, I think he makes a very compelling point…

Dear Roshi Ford:

I am writing to compliment you on your book, Zen Master Who, and to make a small comment/criticism of your discussion of Buddhism and science. First of all, I very much enjoyed the book; your frank discussion of Zen in America with its strengths and areas of concern is a real contribution to the dharma. You provided a great deal of information about specific lineages and specific teachers in a very accessible and entertaining way. I especially liked your recognition of how Zen Masters can be, at times, effective teachers while simultaneously struggling with issues of alcoholism and episodes of student abuse. Your discussion and the increased willingness of sanghas to directly address these issues (so that the abuse is not enabled) is a very good thing for everyone concerned

However, in my opinion your criticism of the integration of Buddhism and science was not well made.

As I understand your argument, the integration of Buddhism and science, embraced by many liberal or secular Buddhists, is inherently flawed due to the issue of falsifiability. As a PhD psychologist, I am aware of Karl Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science and that he and you are correct in saying that a good theory in science is one that generates hypotheses that can be shown to be false. But then you make a point that does not make sense; you suggest that Buddhists seem to ignore the data generated by those sincere Buddhists who do not attain liberation.

Since there are undoubtedly many of these “failures” there is ample evidence in each sangha that would falsify the theories that underlie Buddhist practice. Moreover, you also note that when faced with this disconfirming evidence, Buddhists often rely on circular arguments, appeals to authority, and even justifications that seem to blame the practitioner for not being good enough.

I hope I have understood your argument correctly.

As you know, observed successes and failures comprise anecdotal data and anecdotal data is great for generating hypotheses but very bad for confirming them (I think Paul Meehl made this point many years ago). Researchers like Jon Kabit–Zinn, Daniel Siegel, Richard Davidson, and many others have used the scientific method very effectively to show support for Buddhist practice. To be more specific, just as in psychotherapy outcome research, the method of providing support for a hypothesis comes from many sources including randomized clinical trials, trials with wait listed control groups (randomly assigned), and less effectively, from correlational data. Usually, there is a group of subjects who receive the treatment (in this case some form of Buddhist practice), mean scores are taken on pre and post tests on one or more dependent variables, and then this data is compared to the control group. When you use mean scores, individual scores are, of course, taken into account but they usually do not, by themselves, confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis.

I have been sitting in the Buddhist tradition for over 40 years and I have identified myself as a Zen Buddhist since 1980. While I do not consider myself a secular Buddhist (I have had too many experiences that are not secular), I enjoy reading about the research on the effects of meditation on mental health. Indeed, studying this literature has helped me in my professional work as a clinical psychologist and a school psychologist; I have learned a great deal about how the brain works, about the cultivation of executive functioning skills, and how to help in a very secular way, kids with issues with emotional dysregulation.

In short, I love it when Buddhist ideas are systematically tested and I agree with the Dalai Lama (I am sure he would be thrilled to hear it) that if science shows that some part of Buddhist philosophy to be untenable, we should be prepared to drop that idea or constellation of ideas from our beliefs. I also agree with His Holiness that compassion is compassion and if it takes the scientific method to convince people of its usefulness and importance, so be it.

Again thank for your wonderful book. It is one that I read over and over as I wait for clients to come to my office.

Best wishes

David T Andersen PhD

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  • Rev. Jundo Gregory Gibbs

    The current Dalai Lama often has political reasons for his comment. Buddhists should not try to build any of our fundamental Dharma teachings on the current received findings of other experimental sciences. I would never call Buddhism a science, but it is a discipline with its own rigor, its own criteria of falsification [denial of karmic law, avoidance of the complexity and elusiveness of personal identity, any sort of discrimination...], and its own understanding that its formulations are always provisional and that they will need reformulation or even abandoning. [If you live long enough you will see the notion of "Buddha-nature" become progressively more attenuated. It is a heurism that popped up about 1,700 years ago, nearly a thousand years after Sakyamuni's Great Demise, and it has gradated too much toward compromising the anattman/no soul perspective which will always be the Buddhist position (there is a self, but no soul, ask me about that later).] Buddhism doesn’t oppose the experimental sciences, precisely because it is not an experimental science. It is a spiritual tradition older than the concepts “science”, “religion” or “politics”. It will never be tied to a particular political, scientific, theological or even Buddhalogical system. We are different and accept others as different. And, by the way, I believe in the Big Bang and deny intelligent design but, as a Buddhist, I know I could turn out to be wrong about both of those. [Although, regarding intelligent design, as Don Henley once put it "I could be wrong, but I'm not."]

  • Harry McNicholas

    Dear Sensei

    Very good. I think it is important that we be careful in trying to equate Buddhism with science or science with Buddhism. Science looks at something under the microscope and tries as best as possible to view the object in a non-personal manner. Buddhism puts the viewer under the micoscrope so that the viewer and the viewed become the same. Very personal.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    Dr David Andersen said, “As you know, observed successes and failures comprise anecdotal data and anecdotal data is great for generating hypotheses but very bad for confirming them (I think Paul Meehl made this point many years ago).”

    In my view this is an issue dependent upon the frame of reference. The above comment rests on the presumption of the frame of reference of the “objectivity” of the so-called scientific method. However, the method of Buddha Dharma (i.e., the dharma of the Buddha Dharma), is by definition not a matter of the subjective-objective frame of reference, therefore it cannot accurately be stated that anecdotal data is “very bad for confirming” the hypothesis of awakening liberation. That is, the Buddha’s sutras and the statements of the Zen ancestors and modern teachers are the anecdotal data that confirm the hypotheses of awakening.

    Stated another way, one awakens and experiences liberation and has a sense of self-confirming recognition, then one goes to the anecdotal data to determine whether one’s own recognition is confirmed by the anecdotal data. There just is no so-called “objective” measurement of awakening that will confirm it. There is no measurement of deep breathing, brain wave patterns, body temperature control, etc. that applies. These kinds of objective measurements are merely measuring physical skills and attributes, not awakening. It is like saying that the highest pole vaulter is enlightened because he reaches the hights of the event.

    The closest that we can get to an objective confirmation is in a living encounter in which the person demonstrates their liberation from the dualistic preconceptions of cognitive consciousness in their interactive communication which may include non-verbal as well as highly symbolic or poetic verbal points of interaction. How to measure this by an apparently objective criteria can only lead down the rabbit hole of an “American Idol” type of contest where people would vote on whose demonstration of non-duality is the most liberated. Who would be the judges? This might lead to a great Saturday Night Live sketch, but probably not to much else of value.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    Jundo Gibbs wrote, “And, by the way, I believe in the Big Bang and deny intelligent design but, as a Buddhist, I know I could turn out to be wrong about both of those.”

    Both the Big Bang and Intelligent Design can be seen from a Buddha Dharma perspective, just like God can be seen from a Buddha Dharma perspective as a synonym for Dharmakaya and Sunyata.

    The Big Bang and Intelligent Design are both descriptive theories of the explosive birth or creative action of consciousness which is described in Buddha Dharma using several analytical models; four examples are: (1) the 12 Linked Chains of Interdependent Origination; (2) the 5 Skandhas; (3) the 18 Dhatus; and (4) the 8 Consciousnesses.

    When seen as an event that arises within emptiness (Sunyata), the Big Bang is a workable metaphor in literal materialist terminology for how the plain emptiness of reality becomes activated in the activity of expansion and contraction. The flat event horizon explodes with unrestrained energy, or the quiescent string becomes plucked and the vibrations of the music of the spheres resound. This is the big bang activity of the universe as it is manifested in infinite variation.

    When seen as a process that manifests the body of the Dharma (Dharmakaya), Intelligent Design is a workable metaphor in literal anthropomorphic terminology for how the Dharma is inherently organized in so many patterns (designed) while those patterns themselves are the template for intelligence and therefore intelligence must be seen to be inherently embedded in the activity that leads to the manifestation of intelligence. Taking the anthropomorphic image of a God out of the notion of Intelligent Design, we can see that the design of the universe that bears fruit in intelligence can only do so because the seed of intelligence is present in the initial patterns of the universe even before manifest intelligence was realized in humans. In other words, intelligence is inherent in every patterned design of energy of the universe without any need to imagine an externalized objective God is involved.

  • Kenn

    Thanks for sharing. i feel it is very important to link Buddhism to Science in this modern world.
    Here is a good video about Buddhism meeting science