Speaking of science and religion, I got significantly annoyed by a short piece in Nature magazine by Michael Bond (13 November 2008). Bond reviews two recent books on Buddhism and science: “Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality,” by Pier Luigi Luisi, and “Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed,” by Donald S. Lopez.
I keep being baffled by the fact that so many scientists think it is a cool idea to engage in absurd fits of mental acrobatics so that one can claim that religion, after all, is not in contradiction with science, and in fact can even be somewhat helpful. Granted, Buddhism certainly doesn’t have the same attitude that, say, Christianity and Islam have about science, but there still is a lot of unnecessary fluff that gets thrown around in this misguided quest for a unity between science and religion.
For instance, Bond says that “science and Buddhism seem strangely compatible … [because] to a large degree, Buddhism is a study in human development.” No, it isn’t. Certainly not in the scientific sense of “study.” Buddhism, like all mystical traditions, is about introspection, notoriously a remarkably unreliable source of “evidence.” In that sense, Buddhism is much closer to some continental philosophical traditions based on phenomenology and first-person subjectivity than to science -- the quintessential third-person approach to the study of natural phenomena.
Second, Bond contends, Buddhism has an energetic “champion of science” in the current Dalai Lama. That may very well be, but of course this wasn’t the case with past Lamas, nor is there any assurance that it will continue to be with the next one. This hardly seems grounds for claiming “strange compatibility.” True, the current DL has said that if science should ever find a notion endorsed by Buddhism to be not true “then Buddhism will have to change.” It certainly sounds a heck of a lot better than the usual nonsense coming from creationists and intelligent design proponents.
But a moment reflection will show that this is a pretty empty statement on the Lama’s part, as much as I don’t doubt that he really meant it. What sort of Buddhist concepts could possibly be proven wrong (or right) by science? Buddhism, again like all mystic traditions, phrases its teachings in such vague language that they are simply not amenable to rational, let alone strictly empirical, analysis. Are we one with the universe? Not really, unless one means that we are made of the same basic stuff as everything else, which I don’t think is what Buddhism means. And even if it meant something like that, to claim congruence with science leads to the same anachronism committed by people who say that the atomist philosophers of ancient Greece had “anticipated” the discoveries of modern physics. No, they didn’t, they were working out of metaphysical presuppositions, did not do any mathematical or experimental work, and most certainly didn’t mean what we do by the term “atom.”
Bond goes so far as to suggest that there is an area of research where Buddhism actually has achieved more than what science has produced so far: when it comes to studying consciousness, he says, Buddhism offers “a kind of science of introspection.” It’s worth quoting Bond in full here: “Whereas cognitive science’s best guess is that consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal organization, Buddhists see it at some pure subtle level as not contingent on matter at all, but deriving instead from ‘a previous continuum of consciousness” — the Dalai Lama’s words — that transcends death and has neither beginning nor end.”
Wow. Where to begin? How about with the observation that “a science of introspection” is an oxymoron? As I mentioned above, introspection is certainly a rich kind of experience that can be cultivated for one’s own edification, but it is not and cannot be “science” because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings. Second, that consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal organization is much more than a “guess,” as serious research in neurobiology has made stunning progress in identifying specific regions of the brain that provide the material basis for specific aspects of the conscious experience. And finally, what on earth is even remotely scientific about completely unfounded and even literally meaningless claims about a “continuum of consciousness”? Continuum means adjacent, to what would consciousness be adjacent, pray?
Look, Buddhists have all the rights to believe all the fluff they want, just like anyone else. And unlike fundamentalist Christians they at least don’t pretend to teach their mysticism in science classes. But why do religionists crave so much the recognition of science, beginning with creationists themselves? (After all, they talk about “creation science,” and “intelligent design theory.”)
And why do some scientists lend credence to the Dalai Lama, the Pope, and whoever else invites them for a weekend in Rome or in Dharamsala?
The best that can be said about science and religion is that they have nothing to do with each other, and most certainly nothing to teach to each other. Let’s not pretend otherwise for the sake of cultural correctness.
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Double Mastectomy: 'Angelina Effect' Has Been Long-lasting
- M60-UCD1: Tiny Galaxy, Supermassive Black Hole
- Hurricane Polo
- Sound Vibrations To Reduce Pesticides And Boost Harvests?
- The Wealth Under Afghanistan
- Witness The Singularity AI Nanotech Co-Evolutionary Merger
- Mysterious 1808 Eruption - The Real Cause Of The Coldest Decade Of The Last 500 Years
- "Just checked Facebook again. Tommaso said Martin Gardner published the puzzle in SCIAM...."
- "Didn't the Bullet Cluster show just this (DM being stripped away)?..."
- "No the video was perfectly clear, and made me slap my forehead...."
- "I read a quote from some zen of programming book, that the best programmers did exactly this, hack..."
- "On Facebook Tommaso Dorigo said he remembers seeing the puzzle in Scientific American 35 years..."