Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for November 2013

The scientific project and the Buddhist project

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Having grown up in a family of scientists, at a very early age I acquired the notion that science is interested almost exclusively in the investigation of nature for the sole purpose of discovering what there is and formulating hypotheses about how what there is works and why it is as it is. This investigation, I was taught, is ideally carried out with no contamination from commercial interests, political or social agendas, moral considerations or aesthetic tastes. I was also taught that in practice quite a bit of scientific investigation falls short of that ideal. Now I am well aware that this essentially Peircean notion of what science is all about has been critiqued by many worthy philosophers of science and is considered by some to be hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, I cling to that vision of science and admire all scientific investigation that comes anywhere close to that ideal.

Having come to Buddhism as an adult (insofar as any young pup at the age of twenty-three can be considered an adult), I no doubt misinterpreted a great deal of what I encountered, because I interpreted what I encountered on the basis of the prejudices I had acquired through the system of indoctrination that in the United States of America is mistakenly called education. To be more specific, I saw Buddhism as being an entirely different sort of project from the scientific project. Buddhism, as I saw it, is not at all interested in acquiring an understanding of what there is and how it works but is rather interested in reducing eliminable forms of human unhappiness. Unlike science, Buddhism is ideally dealing in morality and in political and social agendas and in aesthetic taste—the very factors that are absent in ideal science. 

My conclusion from all this was that, because people are multifaceted, it is possible for one person (and yes, I do believe in the reality of persons and selves and all those other realities that Buddhists try to dismiss as being merely conceptual) to be a scientist and a Buddhist, but that it is impossible to be doing good science at the same time that one is practicing good Buddhism. In much the same way that one person can be both a tightrope walker and a Grand Prix racing driver, but that it is impossible to be walking a tightrope at exactly the same time one is driving a racing car, it is impossible for a person to practice science at exactly the same time as one is practicing Buddhism. The practices are incompatible. At any given moment, one must choose which of the two to be doing.

Now insofar as a person takes on the completely foolish project of trying to be consistent in all his beliefs and practices, a person may decide that he has to choose between accepting prevailing scientific hypotheses and the very well-thought-out and purposeful dogmas of Buddhism. In my own early life, I foolishly strove for consistency and therefore jettisoned about 95% of the dogmas of Buddhism on the grounds that I deemed them scientifically false, or at least untestable and therefore lacking scientific meaning. And so I jettisoned karma, rebirth, hell realms, celestial realms, and nirvāṇa for starters and moved on from there to empty the entire medicine cabinet. As more than one person pointed outl, I pretty much discarded all of Buddhism, except for the haircut.

In my latter years, as I have grown less concerned with intellectual integrity and logical consistency, I have come to see that there is a great deal of value in the aspects of Buddhism I formerly discarded. This is not to say I believe the dogmas I once rejected. I just see a real value in acting as if I didn’t not believe in them. Buddhist dogmas are very good at doing precisely what they were designed to do. They make life uninteresting and boring, and that makes one less resentful and afraid of one’s inevitable mortality. We are all going to die. But given that life is so insipid and devoid of meaning and utterly lacking in fun anyway, who will miss it? Nothing could be much better as death approaches (as it does with every breath we take) than the studied indifference to life that Buddhist dogmas instill in those who allow themselves to entertain them.

We live these days in a world in which the incompatibility of the scientific project and the religious project has led to increasing jettisoning of scientific method rather than of religious dogma. Fundamentalism (which began in the Christian world as a conscious rejection of scientific method and has found its way into every other religious tradition) is growing in cultures all over the world with the result that people build their lives, and dare to try to compel others to build their lives, on ideas that have proven themselves throughout history to be intellectually and morally bankrupt—such as the idea that the creator of the entire universe gave a particular parcel of land to one small group of people to own and rule until the end of time, or the idea that women ought always and forever to be subservient to men, or the idea that homosexuality and abortion are offensive in the eyes of the creator, or the idea that the world can be saved only by a savior with a particular name rather than through the collective efforts of human beings who have learned from their experiences and shared their insights with one another through respectful dialogue. The human race could very well perish because of its attachment to the kind of rigid adherence to religious dogmas and practices that we now call fundamentalism. (Of course, none of this matters. If people wipe themselves out, something else will come along to take our place, and then something else after that until eventually the sun explodes without any consciousness that any of us who are made of star dust ever existed.)

When I heard the Dalai Lama say in an address to a small group of scholars and political activists in Montreal in 1993 that he thought the time had come to replace (yes, he used that word) much of Buddhist abhidharma with scientific hypotheses that have not yet been defeated, I was the first to jump to my feet in thunderous applause. A few moments later, a much more reflective voice spoke up quietly and said directly to the Dalai Lama: “Don’t be so quick to discard the tradition that has produced a man of your caliber.” My reaction in 1993 was to think to myself, “Oh God, another cloying uncritical devotee of His Holiness.” Now, twenty years later, I have come to see that the gentle, reflective voice, which belonged to the philosopher Charles Taylor, was saying something rather important to heed.

I fear that the mixing of two incompatible projects—science and Buddhism—is likely to weaken and ultimately undermine both. The only way I can see to keep them both vibrant is to keep them separate, to let each of them be the right tool for the task it was designed to accomplish, and to recognize that it has never been the case and never can be the case that life can ever be reduced to just one legitimate task. Gathering knowledge impartially without any political, commercial, social, moral or aesthetic motivations is important. That is the task for which the tool of scientific method was developed. Learning to switch narratives from those that inflict pain and suffering to those that heal and enable peoples to live peacefully with one another is also important. That is a task for which the tool of Buddhism was developed. Using each tool to do the task for which it was designed strikes me as wise. Choosing only one of the two tools and discarding the other strikes me as foolish. Allowing oneself to think that the two tools are both designed to do the same task also strikes me as foolish, even dangerously so. I do not have confidence that the Dalai Lama fully comprehends what the consequences of replacing fourth-century scholasticism with cognitive science and quantum mechanics are likely to be. I would therefore recommend learning to use scientific method when it is appropriate, and to study classical abdhidharma when it is appropriate.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, November 22, 2013 at 15:00

Posted in Buddhism