Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Buddhism's Love Affair with Science

Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.

Buddhism and Western science are happy in bed together these days. From the Dalai Lama's high-profile Mind & Life Institute dialogues with Western scientists to the many neuroscience research projects studying the effects of Buddhist meditation techniques on the brain, Buddhism and science are in the throes of an extended love affair. But will it last? Will Buddhism and science break up when they realize that, despite their common interests, maybe they don't actually share the same fundamental values and goals in life? Are they perhaps less compatible than they originally thought?

Many Buddhist teachers in the West are fond of saying that Buddhism is not a religion, but a "science of the mind," a set of tools and methods for conducting research and making profound discoveries in the laboratory of your own mind and experience. This positioning appeals to Western rationalists who like to bring a scientific approach to spiritual practice, and it neatly does away with the mystique of "religion" that clings to Buddhism. "Religion" has become something of a dirty word. The "spiritual but not religious" crowd – and roughly one-in-five Americans wears that description – eagerly embrace Buddhism as a "science of the mind."

Often, though, the "spiritual but not religious" folks grow uncomfortable once they get deeper into Buddhist studies and find out – surprise! – that they're being asked to entertain ideas that many Western, rationalistic people find utterly repugnant: things like life after death, rebirth, hidden realms of existence, gods and spirit beings, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, psychic healing, prayer, and much more. Some Buddhist traditions talk about such things more openly than others, but there is nowhere that you can entirely escape mention of them: they appear, in various ways, in many Buddhist scriptures and canonical texts. You can turn a blind eye to the metaphysical elephant in the room, but you can't really be unaware that it's there.

The general sense of discomfort with these things among Western, scientifically-minded Buddhists has lately reached such a crescendo that some (Stephen Batchelor, for example, who is leading the charge of "atheist Buddhists") are now calling for a complete reboot of the system: a return to what they perceive as more fundamental, no-frills aspects of the Buddhist teachings. For these folks, Buddhism as existential psychology and as therapeutic praxis is fine for the rational, scientific mind – but Buddhism as metaphysics or "religion" has got to go.

Not many figures in the scientific community acknowledge the possible limitations of the materialistic view of consciousness, including its apparent inability to explain many common aspects of human experience. "We seem to be realizing," the scholar of religion Huston Smith once wrote, "that materialism, secularism, reductionism, and consumerism are inadequate premises on which to lead our lives – that they drain the wonder and the mystery out of life and experience and are dead ends." James Le Fanu, in a recent article in Prospect magazine titled Science's Dead End, lamented that despite ever-increasing amounts of funding and ever-more voluminous research being produced, modern genetics and neuroscience – two hard sciences whose view of human consciousness and experience is by nature deeply materialistic – have actually told us precious little about the real life of human beings:

The implications are obvious enough. While it might be possible to know everything about the physical materiality of the brain down to the last atom, its “product,” the five cardinal mysteries of the non-material mind, are still unaccounted for: subjective awareness; free will; how memories are stored and retrieved; the “higher” faculties of reason and imagination; and that unique sense of personal identity that changes and matures over time but remains the same.


The further reason why the recent findings of genetics and neuroscience should have proved so perplexing is the assumption that the phenomena of life and the mind are ultimately explicable in the materialist terms of respectively the workings of the genes and the brain that give rise to them. This is a reasonable supposition, for the whole scientific enterprise for the past 150 years is itself predicated on there being nothing in principle that cannot ultimately be explained in materialist terms. But it remains an assumption, and the distinctive feature of both the form and “organisation” of life (as opposed to its materiality) and the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of the mind is that they are unequivocally non-material in that they cannot be quantified, weighed or measured. And thus, strictly speaking, they fall outside the domain of the methods of science to investigate and explain.

This then is the paradox of the best and worst of times. Science, the dominant way of knowing of our age, now finds itself caught between the rock of the supreme intellectual achievement of delineating the history of the universe and the (very) hard place of the apparent inscrutability to its investigations of the phenomena of life and the mind.

In his 2009 book The End of Materialism, Dr. Charles Tart went further. Tart alleged that much of what passes for genuine inquiry in mainstream Western science is actually "scientism," a closed belief system founded on the unproven assumption that mind and life are entirely reducible to material phenomena. In order to maintain this belief system, Tart argued, scientism must willfully close its eyes and ignore a great deal of empirical data demonstrating the existence of non-material aspects of mind and experiences that cannot be explained in conventional scientific terms.

Tart, who for five decades has been conducting serious scientific research into a variety of 'paranormal' phenomena, is quite familiar with the closed-minded, dismissive view towards such research held by true believers of the prevailing scientistic paradigm. Tart alleges that such dogmatic scientists consistently ignore actual data that challenge their assumptions, breaking one of the cardinal rules of scientific inquiry: the data always come first. No assumption or point of view is to be held sacred if the data contradict it. The common reaction among materialists to the parapsychological research of someone like Tart is to assume that, if he is not a complete wacko to begin with, there must be something wrong with his experimental set-up or his analysis of the data, because we "know" that the things his research has demonstrated couldn't possibly be true. But a kneejerk reaction by any other name is still a kneejerk reaction, and it warrants serious investigation.

So where does this leave Buddhism and science? Clearly, a great deal of mutual benefit has come from their recent co-mingling. Science has advanced its understanding of how meditation affects the brain and nervous system, and meditation has thereby been legitimized as something even rational people can practice. It is no longer seen (entirely) as a delusional religious vocation for people who are probably borderline schizophrenics – which is, in itself, a huge step forward for scientific understanding. Buddhism, for its part, has gained insights into the physical correlates of mind states it has been exploring for two-and-a-half millennia. But as Buddhist meditation masters and scientists study one another in the laboratory and the lecture hall, are they being completely honest about what they want from each other? And how meaningful, really, is the common ground they are finding? For Buddhist practitioners, many of the recent, dramatic "discoveries" of neuroscience in regards to the effects of meditation and the brain provoke a general reaction of: "Well, that's nice. Meditation changes your brain? Tell us something we didn't know 2,500 years ago."

Maybe, at the end of the day, Western materialist science is from Mars, and Buddhism is from Venus. Despite the search for common ground, they are still looking at the mind – and the mind's possibilities – in radically different ways. It is doubtful that most Buddhists (with the possible exception of hardcore “atheist Buddhists”) will ever be able to accept the completely materialistic philosophy of mind espoused by mainstream Western science. And it remains equally doubtful that Western science – or 'scientism,' to use Tart's name for it – is really all that keen about having its sacred cow of materialism fundamentally questioned. It's not hard to imagine that as Buddhism and science grow more intimate, the tension between these different points of view will become more obvious.

Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that Buddhism's encounter with the West "may well prove to be the most important event of the 20th century." Here we are now in the 21st century, and that defining event is still unfolding. Among its most important dimensions is this newfound love affair between Buddhism and the Western scientific enterprise. It's still too early for these lovers to move in together. They are in the dating stage, when you're just learning your lover's ways and everything she does is fascinating. But there are already signs of trouble ahead. If one partner expects the other to change and accommodate his views, but is unwilling to have his own assumptions challenged in return, that could signal the start of an abusive relationship.


Jeeprs said...

Science is not from Mars, but the European Enlightenment. As such, it is very much historically determined, and an important part of that is its reaction against anything deemed religious or even spiritual. It wants to concentrate on what is 'really there' - the material world, the domain of the senses and the individual life of the mind. This is something more than science, and other than science - it is an attitude towards life and mind. And not without reason, as the institutional religious forms that were being reacted against were dogmatic, exclusionary and reactionary.

Buddhists know there is a science of mind - a sacred science, but before even commencing the study of it, you have to take the precepts and observe the dharma. These attitudes are completely alien to the spirit of European Enlightenment. We need to again find a middle ground, and middle path, between religious dogmatism and scientific materialism. Buddhism provides that path.

Dennis Hunter said...

Excellent points, Jeeprs. Thanks. I especially appreciate the reminder about the European Enlightenment and how the attitudes of today's science are still historically determined by that. The crowning irony is that, according to people like Tart, today's scientists have largely a "dogmatic, exclusionary and reactionary" doctrinal system of their own. And your middle path between religious dogmatism and scientific materialism sounds much like the path that Tart tries to envision in his book: the thrust of his work is really about finding the places where science and spirituality come together in the pursuit of a shared understanding and a common goal.