Friday, September 26, 2008

Is a Buddhism-informed science the same as a science-informed Buddhism?

You may have heard about the current Daila Lama giving the keynote address at a professional meeting of neuroscientists. He even wrote a book, The Universe in an Atom, about the potentially fruitful collaboration between Buddhism and science. Scientists are studying meditation, Buddhist and otherwise. And some are writing that certain scientific developments, such as the odd developments coming out of theoretical physics, are in accordance with the teachings and principles the Buddha gave us thousands of years ago. It can be a very exciting time for those who enjoy learning about or working with both topics. But what is the nature of the relationship between these topics?

Science is rooted in the conviction that the universe is intelligible and that is is ordered according to certain patterns and underlying regular processes. This conviction originally came from belief in a Creator who thus organized existence. This conviction is also at the core of what science is and is not, what it can and cannot do and where it can and cannot be applied. In particular, science deals with describing and explaining regularly occurring, empirically observable phenomena and the predictions and retrodictions based on such evidence. Things which are occur irregularly (there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason and there aren't enough observances to even guess at a pattern or process), or which are not reliably (or ever) empirically observable are beyond the scope of science. This does not mean other things do not exist or are of no consequence (contra the fundamental premise of scientism), but that they don't fit in sciences wheelhouse. Ontological naturalism and scientism are metaphysical assumption that are made at level that cannot be verified or falsified by science.

Nor can we assume that science can always give us complete and satisfactory answers even to those areas it is qualified to address. Science is a highly effective tool for investigation that includes a number of intentional assumptions and perspectives which divide reality into an artifical model so that we can better understand the aspect of the universe on which were focusing our attention. This is what makes science so powerful - yes, it does introduce some degree of distortion (bias) as it magnifies what we want to understand, but so long as we acknowledge and accept a degree of artificiality with a correct understanding, this need not be a major concern. But it does mean that the scientific lens does not a perfectly complete and faithful perspective. The scientific lens is one of many possible lenses, and while neglecting a scientific perspective when one is available is inadvisible, simply trusting it is always being superior to every other lens is the same kind of myopic danger that leads some to rely soley on the lens of faith.

Buddhism comes rooted in a different set of cultural assumptions and a different concern - identifying the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering and how to be liberated from suffering (through transformation or transcendence). Because it investigates these things through observation and testing, some of even referred to Buddhism as the science of happiness. The similarity between science and Buddhism for those who tend to generically associate observation and testing with science is obvious. And since some fields of science investigate topics like emotion, mood, consciousness, etc, it is also unsurprising to find that these two lenses have come up to similar conclusions. Nor is the suggestion of a fruitful collaboration far fetched. But that doesn't mean that Buddhism is science or that science is Buddhism, nor that either should be considered a subcategory or simply a spcialized extension of the other.

When it comes to string theory and quantum physics a word of caution is in order as well. Reffering to His Holiness again, the Dalai Lama noted in The Good Heart that really smart people can find or generate similarities and dissimilarities between nearly anything, and can hence make them seem much more different or alike than they may actually be. His caution was about trying to read too much too quickly into superficial similarities between religions like Christianity and Buddhism, but we can adopt the same tone for physics and Buddhism as well. There are some really profound and important aspects that many of not all major sacred traditions share, and there are some important insights that Buddhism may have which sound remarkably similar to what people think may be happening at really large and really small scales of matter and time and energy.

Even if we presume the Buddha could "see" into the various levels of reality, his cultural background would have shaped and informed the impressions he received in his perceptions, including how many levels, how they there organized, how they interacted. Science builds on previous models and schema, but it is possible to have named and organized things a little differently than we have. There are alternative roots science could have taken in describing and explaining things, and it may yet do so in the future. Another way to say it is that the shape of our scientific understanding has a component of cultural and historical context that would not have been available to someone living thousands of years ago. The Buddha would no have known what a cosmic string or a quark was. Instead, even without the lens and context of modern science he was still able to recognize and describe what he felt were universal qualities or properties.

There is a temptation then to focus on what we think the Buddha got right according to the similarties of contemporary ideas from science and de-emphsize what we suspect he may have gotten wrong, and only attribute the importance of historical and cultural context to the latter. But the Buddha was not operating as a scientist. The lens offered by science is not equivalent to the lens of the Buddhist path. A Buddhism-informed science is not the same as a science-informed Buddhism. Which brings us to a question - should we strive either for a Buddhism-informed science or for a science-informed Buddhism? Or should we seek neither? Should we strive to allow them to operate independently and supply inspiration to areas of common concern and interest as well as each other?

The Dalai Lama has said that if Buddhism and science conflict, Buddhism should defer to science. This makes sense for the areas where Buddhism might be used to make predictons about the physical nature of reality, but what about the mental or spiritual nature of reality, which scientists must reduce to the material in order to make it amenable for scientific investigation? Does the fact that there can be a scientific model proposed which performs such a reduction mean that Buddhism should defer to science and go along with a reductionist perspective just because it is available? Or does Buddhism (or do other traditions) offer something more that cannot be fully captured by a strictly reductionist lens? By focusing on one dimension of our existence does such a perpective overlook another? Is there something about the value of Buddhist teachings and practices which remains independent of the worldview or cosmology that happens to be in vogue?

If science were to say tomorrow that physics no longer superficially resembled the ideas of dependent origination and emptiness, they are still useful teachings. Even though ancient cosmologies from the time of the Buddha, which his students would have accepted as a given, may not be accepted today, his teachings are relevant because humans are still humans, still sentient beings. Because phenomena are themselves limited and biased mental constructions intended to break the continuity and flow of existence into manageable chunks. This is an issue of perception and cognition and semantics - and it will always be a challenge for humans inhabiting our limited bodies. Hence the observation of Huineng, the sixth patriarch or ancestor of the early Ch'an ("Zen") lineage, in the following kung-an ("koan") from Robert Aiken's translation of the Wu-Men Kuan (or Mumonkan)...

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree.

The Sixth Ancestor said, "Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were struck with awe.

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