You are here

Does Buddhism have to be Scientific?

Submitted by Dharmavidya on Wed, 28/11/2012 - 19:32

Donald Lopez has an interesting article in the current issue of Tricycle magazine in which he asks the question, "why should Buddhism be consistent with science?" He outlines the history of how European colonialism brought Christianity to Asia and was assisted in persuading Asians by its alliance with science, Christianity and science being two fruits of European culture. Buddhists resisted this pressure and advanced the idea that Buddhism was more consistent with science than Christianity and therefore a more fitting religion for the modern age. Having won this argument, however, we now find that Buddhism is being more than somewhat remodelled in the image of science. Meditation and especially mindfulness are being presented as quasi-medical treatments for stress reduction, for instance, whereas, as Lopez points out, stress-reduction was no part of the original objective of these techniques. Indeed, Lopez goes as far as to say that meditation was originally in tended to effect a stress increment. It's original intention was, he says, to make one anxious, indeed desperate, to leave samsara, not to make one more at ease living within it.

This is an interesting argument. I agree with Lopez that science should not be the measuring stick of religion. Making it so is essentially a misunderstanding about the nature of science. Science is not a system to tell you how to run your life or what your aims should be. It may be able to help you get there once you have decided where you are going, but science is not about values, it is about the nature of the situation. It would be just a scientific or unscientific to increase stress as to reduce it. Science's job, in that regard, is to elucidate the matter and process of stress. It is then for us to decide whether we want less or more of it. Similarly, science can investigate meditation and find out what it is and how it functions, but that does not, in itself, tell us whether we want to do it or not nor why we might want to.

What has happened is that a quasi-religion that we might call scientism has arisen based partly on a misunderstanding of the nature of science, partly on the prestige that science has achieved and partly upon using the scientific method as a metaphor for processes in other areas of life. Some of the misunderstanding is in thinking that what is sometimes called scientific management is science, whereas it is actually the use of science in management. If we want to manage stress, to take the case in point, we can use some knowledge that science provides. This would be true whether we thought stress to be good and useful or destructive or useless. The fact that management can use science does not make the goals of management scientific. 

Scientific method relies heavily on measurement and reproducibility of effects. This has led some people to the false conclusion that unmeasurable or non-reproducible phenomena do not and cannot exist. Science cannot, however, validate this conclusion. It is not possible to prove scientifically that an unmeasurable phenomenon does not exist nor that an unrepeatable event has not occurred and certainly not that one cannot occur in the future. Science has its province and within it it has had many successes, but that does not justify its extension by analogy.

Moving on from these points about science, what about Buddhism? Lopez clearly hold to what I would call the extinctionist interpretation of Buddhism. I do not share this perspective. I belong to the liberationist persuasion. As between these two positions, I do not think there is any way to settle the matter ultimately. Shakyamuni is not here to ask and many texts are open to either interpretation. A lot depends upon how you interpret a number of key terms. 

In my experience, meditation does reduce stress, as a matter of fact, and I do not think that this fact is either anti-Buddhist or pro-science or vice versa. I do think that Buddhism is about living more fully in this and all worlds and that references to leaving samsara refer to living differently, not to ceasing to live. Samsara is the style of life in which one goes round and round in fruitless circles. The purpose of awakening and enlightenment is to free us from such compulsive self-defeat and faith in Buddhism is essentially openness to the help that one can receive from those who have so been freed.

From this position, I do not have any problem with Buddhists asserting that Buddhism is not in conflict with science, but I do share Lopez' concern that Buddhism is being changed by those who actually are not really Buddhist (either extinctionist or liberationist) but are actually believers in scientism which is a rather shallow creed that is not likely to survive current fashion. 


Massimo Tomassini's picture

I appreciate the reading of Lopez's article done by David. In particular I like David's liberationist stance and its conclusions regarding scientism as a shallow creed that, in the end, won't succed in containing the deep waters of Buddhism. 

On the other side I can't entirely share his viewpoint concerning science. Science is not as abstract and neutral as David seems to hold. It is not limited to measuring phenomena and assessing their ways of reproduction. Actually science is much more than this. Its underpinnings are concrete interests and power instances. It is increasingly closer to technology, it tends to impose its methods in all human matters and to keep his leading role in modern society at any price.

Much better science than religion of course. But it is a matter of fact that the roots of the new religion called scientism lie in the fertile ground of Science and of its wille-zur-macht. Scientism is a way for asserting the infallibility of science and for colonising all possible territories. Including the one of mindfulness, and even the one of the whole  Buddhism, that for many are more appealing and  legitimised if supported by scientific evidences, (cholesterol, etc.. as sharply Lopez underlines). 

We will be more effective in contrasting scientism when we recognise such roots.

Concerning "scientific management", I would like to note that, to my knowledge, it is more or less synonim of taylorism, a way of organising that is not in good currency anymore among managers and scholars in this field, although still very relevant as more or less hidden regulating framework of human activities and relations. Effective management is not necessarily scientific and not necessarily claims to be a scientific endeavour. Two opposite view dominate the field: according to the first one management is a branch of science, regarding what can be measured; the second one states that management is an art, concerned with what is not at all measurable.

Scientism is definitively not the one best way for all, in many areas of human life.

Dharmavidya's picture

Thank you, Massimo. Intelligent reflections. You are right that science as currently understood merges with technology, though I would want to distinguish them conceptually.