Parallels Departures and What Science can gain from Buddhism

According to our experience there is a tremendous variety of stuff which exists in the world. Furthermore, any specific sample of this stuff seems to be extremely active, constantly moving, interacting with and reacting against all the other stuff. How are we to explain this – both the stuff and the activity? How does it work, and what purpose does it serve in what appears to be a well-designed, functionally cohesive system? And where do we fit in; what is our relation to this stuff and our place in the system? These are some of the questions that underlie all spiritual traditions.

Likewise, they are questions that drive modern science. In this paper I would like to examine the approach that modern science takes in answering these questions and compare it to the approach of the Buddhist tradition. I will support the claim that both approaches parallel each other in many ways. At the same time I will point out some fundamental differences between them. Finally, I hope to show that by borrowing from the Buddhist approach the scientific community could increase both the overall value of science and the benefits it offers. Modern science and Buddhism are similar in approach in at least these four ways:

Expert training is important for each. For each a causal understanding is fundamental. Both science and Buddhism can be said to be traditions of radical doubt. Neither tradition has been wholly comfortable with accepting our everyday experience of the world as being real. Instead, they hold the position that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we normally view the world. Both science and Buddhism are concerned with coming to understand ultimate order, and for each a common sense view of the world is simply unsatisfactory because it doesn’t provide a clear picture of what is real.

That is to say, our common view of the world is somewhat distorted or clouded. With the understanding that the two traditions maintain relatively negative positions regarding everyday experience we must also understand that both rely directly on experience to explain the nature things. As stated earlier both are pragmatic in their approaches; that is to say that the emphasis of each is to start from experience. This only seems natural. For what more logical place could one start than from his or her own experience?

However, what is important for both science and Buddhism is to make the proper logical inferences about experience when relating them to the ultimate order of things. Unfortunately, this is a skill at which we do not ordinarily excel. This is precisely the reason why expert training is important to both traditions. In science we have specialists, each trained in a particular field of study. For example, would one suffering from a sinus infection go to a physicist to receive treatment? Of course not. One would go to someone with some training in the discipline of biology.

Further, one would seek out a person with a firm understanding of microbial biology and human anatomy. Even more specifically one might seek the council of another with a specialized study of the human ear, nose, and throat. This example illustrates why it is that in science expert training is necessary. The same is true for Buddhism. Only, where science is concerned with understanding the external (physical) world, the focus of Buddhism is in understanding the inner (mental, spiritual) world. Expert training in yogic meditation is necessary in Buddhism in order to clearly see and eliminate the distortions of the mind.

This leads us to the divisions between science and Buddhism. The divisions lie primarily on two fronts, one having to do with the relationship between the mind and body and the other, just mentioned above, is the point where each chooses to focus its attention. Regarding the mind and body, the dominant scientific view is that the two are fundamentally different and completely distinct from one another. This division of mind and body dates back to the time of Rene Descartes and the birth of modern science.

Furthermore, the division of mind and body in the West has resulted in a multitude of problems with trying to describe the nature of experience and ultimate order. If mind and body are indeed distinct from one another, how is it that one can know, influence, or relate to the other? What, if anything, acts as the bridge between them? In attempting to solve the problems that arise with the mind/body split some within the scientific community have gone so far as to argue that mind can be explained completely in terms of body.

Needless to say, the scientific eye is primarily focused on “body. ” The Buddhist tradition has a view of body and mind in sharp contrast with that of modern science. In Buddhism (as well as most other Indian philosophies) there is no clear division between mind and body. What’s more, in this tradition body is seen as an extension of the soul or mind. That is to say, without mind, body doesn’t exist. With these two presuppositions firmly placed within each tradition, we get a better understanding of how and why their aims differ.

As stated early in this paper, a causal understanding of relationships is fundamental to both the Buddhist and the modern science paradigms. However, based on the presuppositions of each, we will see that causation, or the structure of causal relations, is thought to function on rather different levels. Let’s examine both views in order to make clear the different understandings of causation. For it is in understanding these differences that science will have the most to gain from Buddhism. In science causation has to do with relations of objects.

In order to better study these relations science utilizes both a systematic method designed to help clarify the cloudy distortions of our everyday experience as well as a specific language – mathematics – to communicate its findings. The primary stage of the method is to decide upon the object one wishes to study. Then, inferences are made based on experience (or what is already “known”) of the object and a guess about the objects “true” nature is issued. A prediction is then made as to how the object will behave given a certain set of conditions.

That is to say, a prediction is made about the effects of causation on the object. A test is then conducted to test the truth-value of the guess and prediction. Once measurements from the test have been evaluated conclusions can be made about the relative nature of the object. Thus, to reiterate, the primary purpose of science is to look in order to better understand objects and how they relate with one another. One important aspect of the scientific gaze is that through it an attempt is made to minimize the effects of the observer. As discussed earlier, for science unaided human observation tends to be somewhat distorted.

For this reason science has developed tools designed to take measurements altogether eliminating or at least minimizing the need for a human observer. Indeed, many of the devises are designed to “observe” things that are unobservable given the limits of human senses. Again, in contrast to the scientific approach, Buddhism does not seek to eliminate the observer. In fact, it is more interested in understanding the observer than it is on understanding objects. Remember that the mind and body are not considered to be wholly distinct in Buddhism – that, in fact, body is merely and extension of the mind.

Where science seeks to eliminate distortions by eliminating the observer, Buddhism seeks to eliminate the distortions within the observer. Our thoughts, emotions, desires, etc. , all have the potential to distort the mind. As such they are regarded as internal causes. Since the primary concern of Buddhism is to eliminate the fundamental cause of suffering, then it stands to reason that we should look at the relationship between these internal causes and suffering. In Buddhism such an inquiry reveals that there is a bond between causality and ethics. That is, there is a relationship between ethical behavior and inner mental clarity.

Our behavior is in many ways self-perpetuating, meaning essentially that we are creatures that tend to behave consistently. It is therefore imperative that we turn our focus inwardly. So long as we remain unaware of the causes that motivate our actions and the overall impact of our decisions we will continue to suffer. It is this ethical tie with causation that really separates Buddhism from science. If we look ever more closely at causal relationships from the Buddhist perspective, not only do we eventually see clearly the true nature of things, but we eliminate suffering as a result.

However, this is not true for science. Relatively new discoveries in physics have revealed that when we measure too closely in science causality actually begins to fall apart, and we are left without a coherent foundation for reality. Furthermore, since science is not concerned with questions of ought, or how we should behave, it provides us with no foundation for making choices. In asking “is” questions regarding life, science provides us with little support for actual “living. ” It is not my intention to leave the impression that science is completely without value.

Indeed, even from the Buddhist perspective science may have much to offer. In fact, much of what we discover through science is used to develop technologies that eliminate the material causes of suffering. Obviously this is not to be viewed negatively since Buddhism also seeks to eliminate suffering. And, although Buddhism is concerned more with mental or spiritual suffering, it does recognize that the elimination of material causes of suffering can make it easier to focus on the mental causes. So how is it that science can benefit by adopting elements of the Buddhist approach?

The answer to this question is not actually aimed at science itself but rather at those who involve themselves with it. Science itself is by definition is merely a methodological activity aimed at providing an explanation for natural phenomena. So it is through the scientist that the influence of Buddhism could work to increase the benefits (technologies) that come from science. Surely, with reference to Buddhism’s system of ethical causation, scientists could increase scientific benefit in at least two ways.

First, the Buddhist approach could inspire scientists to look at what it is exactly that has the focus of their scientific eye. Perhaps this would allow for a reevaluation of what is really worthwhile in regards to scientific study. Second, certainly the ethical approach of Buddhism would require that scientists give pause and consider the potential impact that their discoveries might have if not managed wisely. So not only would the scientific community be asking “What do we study? , but they would also be asking “What should we do with what we find? ” This may seem a bit strange at first, but a quick glance at the world today will show us the dramatic effects of a science without ethics. It was only little more than half a century ago that atomic energy was used to destroy the lives of thousands of innocent humans. And now we are confronted with the possibilities of commercial genetic selection and human cloning. It seems that science now more than ever needs ethical guidance.


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