31 May 2009

Mind and Life Institute on Buddhism and Modern Science

This is a short article entitled "The Importance of the Encounter with Buddhism for Modern Science" by Francisco J. Varela and published at the Mind & Life Institute. The main points are that Buddhist practices and philosophy are having a profound effect on the assumptions and direction of some modern sciences, especially in the realms of consciousness and epistemology. Below are some of my own thoughts on the points discussed in Varela's article.

Of the Eastern religions, Buddhism has had the highest level of penetration in the West outside of immigrant populations. However, I think that the esoteric practices of Hinduism and Taoism have much in common with Buddhism and all three traditions should be looked at together. Having said that, let's see what the Mind & Life Institute has to say.

The first major impact of Buddhism on science is in the study of consciousness and the range of human abilities. What is normal? What are the limits of human experience? How do we distinguish reality from illusion and delusion? Western science has often been accused of being so objective as to have ignored subjective experiences. For example, the main branch of psychology studied at university during the 20th century has been behaviourism; mainly because both inputs and outputs are measurable and thereby people's actual subjective experiences that happen in the middle of the process can be ignored and then deduced from the data. I think, however, that the global village is a recent phenomenon and that we still have a wide range of educational and philosophical traditions around the world. Just as modern science was born in Europe and is now a worldwide enterprise, so Buddhism, or at least the esoteric practices of Buddhism, may have been born in India but there is no reason why it should not become a universal tool for exploring consciousness. That is why I also mentioned Hinduism and Taoism: shorn of their religious shells, they are at an experiential level talking the same language.

The scientific focus on data, empiricism and objectivity has discarded a lot of ideas that were based on superstition or just plain wrong. By doing so it has also come to appreciate that there are aspects of the human experience that remain baffling and mysterious. Into the scene steps the accumulated data of centuries of experimentation on human consciousness from the subjective point of view. Experiences such as lucid dreaming, religious visions, altered states of mind, out of body experiences all once seemed like pathologies. Yet now, with the help of medical physics on the one hand and the knowledge of expert meditators on the other, these exoteric and esoteric scientists are discovering common ground.

This is a major step forward in human knowledge. We may soon reach a point where the inner and outer scientists share a common philosophical framework. As an aside, this may also herald the end of fideist religions. Mystical traditions do exist in the Near Eastern monotheisms but they have usually been marginalised, if not driven wholly underground. The fundamental problem for dogmatic religions is that human consciousness may throw up unorthodox experiences. The esoteric traditions such as Buddhism have accepted this and their focus has been not so much on dogma but on seeing how far human experiences can go. Yes, a theoretical framework has grown up around these experiences but it is periodically updated to reflect any new discoveries. What is the ultimate reality we can experience? This quest is as scientific as the search for the ultimate physical reality. At some point, a truly universal theory of everything will have to account for both phenomena.

This leads to the second influence of Buddhism, which is in the sphere of epistemology: the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know what we know? What is reality really like? Varela spends less time discussing epistemology as this seems to lean more towards the philosophy of science than to experiencing new levels of consciousness. The main influence here has been on physics and its innumerable problems that have arisen ever since the birth of quantum mechanics. Non-local phenomena and a vacuum that is both empty and yet brimming with potential all have parallels in Buddhist philosophy. The newtonian ideas of cause and effect still have domains in which they apply, but at the most fundamental level quantum effect mock any notion of strict causality. My problem here is that trying to wed Buddhism with theoretical physics may backfire if at some point in the future there is another scientific revolution and a new higher order is discovered. This may be unfounded, but although such philosophical cross-fertilization has proved useful to both sides I still think that the most fertile ground is with the neurosciences and biophysics.
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