Check out this video: Buddhism and Science: A Brief History from The Berkley Center.
Often reading Buddhism into science and vice-versa can be very misleading. This talk by Thupten Jinpa is in dialogue with David Lopez's excellent book, Buddhism and Science: A Guide For the Perplexed. Dr. Jinpa pretty much states the historical Tibetan relationship to science as it came late to encountering "scientific modernity."
While I am a former practicing Theravada Buddhist who could not honestly reconcile it with my knowledge of the way various things worked, Lopez's book actually made me even most skeptical of attempts by the likes of Sam Harris to claim Buddhism as a non-theistic and rationalistic creed. It does not traditionally seem to be either. Ironically, Ajahn Geoff, a Theravadan monk, has said similarly that a lot of the scientific popularizations of Buddhism have more roots in William James and Japanese cultural outreach than in traditional Buddhist doctrine.
This leads to me wonder: If we go so such lengths to secularize Buddhism, is it because it is a tradition outside of our modern European extraction and thus easier to project upon? While I agree Buddhist ethics can be largely naturalized, but there is a large current of Buddhist thought that is impervious to this effort. Indeed, one of things missed on the episode is that Buddhist ethics, in a Buddhist spectrum, applies to animals as subjects and not just objects of the method. Only humans can transcend dukkha, but all animals can minimize it. This implies a volition that is not just human-specific. In fact, it is not a differences of kind or even degree of volition, as volition is always limited by karmic (*Also in naturalistic terms, it is important to see that Buddhists would be compatiblists in regards to "free" will. One is limited by karma, but still responsible for it.), but a difference in context; the context of human life enables one to transcend the cycle of dukkha. This context, however, is totally metaphysical: it is in a particular world, of which the Buddhist cosmology, has many, and a particular place in a particular time.
Is this so easily reconciled with naturalism? I don't know. Maybe this can be done (for any religion) if one separates its ethics from its metaphysics. Even an Abrahamic faith such as Judaism has been naturalized in this way: Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism have removed or minimized the supernatural and metaphysical elements in Judaism and kept its cultural and moral logic. The result, however, may seem arbitrary outside of its context of the Jewish community. Why would a naturalized Buddhism be different? I suppose, if we take the claims Lopez makes about the historical relationship of Buddhism to science seriously, why should we privilege Buddhism over other traditions? I find these notions suspect, but Jinpa's lecture does give me some reason not to write it off out of hand.
-C. Derick Varn
thanks, will watch the talk later but my sense is that the soundbyte western view of buddhism as not being theistic/deistic is part of the appeal to the secular academy (as I’m sure you know phenomenology has long been a beleaguered minority in the academy so any chance to gain scientific&public support is gold) and why it gets more coverage than say the same brain studies done on catholic nuns.
on the popular front seems to be a strand/brand of the cut&paste uses and abuses of science and religious traditions by new-agers, will be interesting to see if much of that nonsense outlives the baby-boomers.
my worry is that “positive” psychology is here to stay.
Yeah, I think it is a demographic obsession of the boomers myself, although it was good for getting converts to the religion.
Amod Lele says
I’ve just stumbled on this blog and I’m really enjoying what I’ve found so far. I think your comments on Lopez’s book are well taken overall. You might find my review of the book on my own blog interesting:
As you’ll be able to tell, I didn’t like the book nearly as much as you did, but I think what you draw from it is fair. Your question – is it any easier to naturalize Buddhism than any other tradition? – is a really good one. I think the really interesting questions lie in that direction: what happens when you try to naturalize any tradition? There are some features of Buddhism that I think are helpful for a naturalist project, but I agree that we shouldn’t assume it’s necessarily any better at being naturalized than any other tradition. Since I notice that naturalized Buddhism is a big topic on this blog at the moment, I might also point you to my most recent blog entry, which is on exactly that topic:
Hope you find them interesting.
(P.S. He’s Donald, not David.)
This is why I should proof read.
Your post on eudaimonia raises some particularly interesting points: Śāntideva’s more lose reading of puṇya is something that complicated things, but would this be a problem in the Theravada traditions? I don’t know myself. It’s been years since I combed Buddhist texts that closely.
Sadly, I’m with dmf on this one in that I’ll have to hold off some serious discussion of the lecture itself until I have the time to watch through it. I think the ease in which people are finding to naturalize Buddhism, as a personal practice at least, comes in part in the disconnect from direct experience with actual practitioners.
Likewise, I would say that western attempts to naturalize Christianity even in simple forms have largely failed, though I’m thinking mostly of the Jeffersonian Bible and Tolstoy’s The Gospels in Brief.
There is a recent attempt I heard about from Dr. Robert Price, but I can’t remember who was doing it.
Daniel Horne says
Derick, I think you nailed it right there. Good post.
Funny thing too because I live in South Korea, Buddhism, while it is only a minority religion now, is still alive here: it looks NOTHING like what you would get from the way people in California outside the Asian expatriate community practice. I was trained in Theravada tradition about a decade ago, and mostly with Laotians, so I already knew the disconnect before coming out here, but see it again drove in home.
Bruce Adam says
Didn’t Schleiermacher, the father of protestant theology, effectively naturalise christianity.
not sure if Sch. did away completely with God and souls, he certainly did contribute much, along the lines of Kant, to start what became trends in liberal theological education, John Dewey later tried and failed (sociologically speaking) to naturalize christianity in line with modern thinking after Darwin, may well be a project without a future.
Chris Mullen says
I am pretty sure that Spinoza did a great deal to “naturalize Christianity” well before Schleiermacher. Spinoza, at the very least, “naturalized scripture” in order to expose the moral message embedded within.
David Buchanan says
Never heard a better lecture on this topic. Even the Q&A afterward was better than usual. Thanks, C. Derick.
I don’t know a lot of about Buddhism, but I’ve always thought that a cursory examination of Buddhism makes it a little hard to naturalize. There seems to be a lot of metaphysical baggage that comes with it that is really incompatible with naturalism.
David Buchanan says
As I heard it, the main thrust of Jinpa’s talk was to make a case that the dialogue between Western science and Buddhism should be viewed as an exchange of ideas between relatively equal partners, as an exchange that is mutually enlightening for both traditions. What Jinpa does NOT want is for Buddhism to become just another subject for Western science to dissect. He does not want Buddhism to be hacked up, squeezed or otherwise forced to fit into our worldview. He takes that sort of attitude to be both dogmatic and condescending. It’s the attitude of the colonialist, whose only going to extract whatever he finds profitable or useful and then sail away. What he hopes for instead is that science will be altered in improved by the exchange as much as his own Buddhist tradition.
The man has been the Dali Lama’s chief translator for 25 years and he works with scientists at Stanford in an interdisciplinary effort to look at consciousness and yet he practically has to beg for respect. He has to explain that their tradition doesn’t have a sharp line between science and religion. He has to explain that Buddhism has a 2000 year old tradition of philosophical and phenomenological development. He has to explain that his own Tibetan tradition is an integration of extension of a tradition that is every bit as old and sophisticate as our own scientific tradition. It’s sort of sad that he has to plead and beg for equality.
When we Westerners say we want to “naturalize” Buddhism, does that just mean that we want to make it fit into our ideas of what’s scientifically real and objectively true? Or are we going to seriously engage with a tradition that challenges those very precepts? If it’s a dialogue between equal partners, then why does scientific realism get to define what “natural” means? That basic assumption seems quite normal to us, but Jinpa explains that his tradition simply does not share those assumptions. The idea that facts are distinct from values, or the minds can be reduced to brains, to cite two of the most relevant examples, just don’t make any sense from their perspective.
From the Western perspective, to repeat Jinpa’s example, the physicists understand a home run hit better than the guy who held the bat and actually hit the ball out of the park. From the Eastern perspective, we are a little bit crazy to think that way and I think they have damn good point.
who in the west would fail to understand the difference between knowing about and knowing how as in the baseball example, or reduces minds to brains? it’s just not a case of being so either or, neurophenomenologists have good reasons for their interests in say buddhist work on attention and moods but physicists have equally good reasons for dismissing much of their cosmology/metaphysics. Not sure how equality comes into the picture in such discussions.
These tibetans are in a very tough position as both believers and the conservators of a culture under siege but they don’t have to take part in conversations that make them uncomfortable.
As for a tradition being “old” what does that have to do with its relationship to truth, and given how practices/ideas necessarily change over time is there really such a thing as an ancient tradition?
David Buchanan says
Well, dmf, I’d say your comments and questions are pretty good examples of how the inequality keeps creeping into the discussions. Why can’t we just as easily say that the Buddhists have good reasons for dismissing the metaphysical assumptions of physicists? As Jinpa points out, phenomenology is the study of consciousness from the first-person perspective while neurological studies are conducted from a third-person point of view. This means that the term “neurophenomenology” is the attempt to study the first person perspective from a third person perspective, the attempt to study subjective experience but only insofar as it is objective experience. That’s what Jinpa’s complaints about the home run hitter is all about. The scientific approach is to dismiss the concrete experiences of actual people in favor of mathematical abstractions about some of the physical features of the situation. Jinpa’s point is that this is a very impoverished view and there is no good reason to denigrate one perspective at the expense of the other. Both perspectives are valuable. Their tradition shuns reductionism for an integrated view wherein facts and values are both real. They are both part of a more comprehensive worldview. If the exchange is equal, both sides are likely to feel some discomfort and that’s okay. It’s supposed to be a meeting of East and West, not just the Western appropriation of Eastern goods.
His answer to the question about Heidegger’s critique of science was especially illuminating. ( In “The Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger makes a case that the scientific world view has profound effects on the way we see ourselves in the world, namely as technological beings, as consumers in a world conceived primarily as a resource, a standing reserve of useful things – and even our attitudes toward truth and knowledge become instrumental. In effect, science and technology together is something like gasoline powered ego, where the game is power and control in the service of MY purposes. Compassion, the highest moral value in Buddhism, can act as a powerful corrective to our cultural ego mania.
db, you didn’t answer my question about who is dismissing 1st person accounts, and neurophenomenologists do not try and reduce first person accounts to third person perspectives but work to understand the interactions (often in terms of enactivsism/extended-minds), as I said the buddhists are free to ignore science if it doesn’t suit their purposes but why should science limit its investigations? you seem to believe that there is some 3rd position to take between scientific naturalism and super/supra-naturalism but have yet to do more than assert such a possibility, and similarly with “It’s supposed to be a meeting of East and West, not just the Western appropriation of Eastern goods”,why is this so, where does this “supposed to” come from?
It’s probably also good to consider how it is that during the process of globalization, western ideas have always usually taken hold as opposed to eastern ones. There is a reason why the discussion remains so incredibly one-sided, and it’s largely a matter of whose ideas allowed for the decision to take control over the present material circumstances at any cost. To me, ancestral worship, which would appear to rank very highly on matters of importance for the average eastern buddhist still today, is an inherently conservative and debilitating cultural trait. Conversely, just look at how the west’s skyrocketing industrial growth always came directly hand in hand with dismantling the old power aristocracies. You don’t even need any values in order to participate in this new system. Really it is in your best interest to not believe in anything at all, as detrimental character traits like compassion tend to drive down personal short-term profitability, and whereever you refuse to maximize profitability, someone else beholden to fewer traditional values will come in and do the job in your stead. This is far more importantly a political problem then a psychological one. If the west is being accused of such violent cultural imperialism, then the appropriate response is not to treat your oppressor with compassion, but to perform revolution.
Whether any specific Buddhist doctrine would allow for meaningful change from our circumstances under neoliberal capitalism, I’m not sure, but I do know that this common western take-away that we just need to be less consumptive materialists is hypocritical and regressive. The poor use exactly the materials that they need in order to barely survive, nobody needs to reduce their consumption except the privileged class of people who are able to derive their political power precisely from the ongoing practice of rampant overconsumption. The call to reduce consumption is just the demand that the poor willingly give up whatever remaining right they still have to oppose the state, and in this sense Buddhism is primarily another kind of hegemony standing in the way of change. Science has made all the important contributions to our understanding of neurobiology in the last hundred years, and every day they are making further advances. They don’t need Buddhism to capitalise on what was long ago discovered to be an advertising goldmine, it is now up to the conservators of this allegedly radically different culture to present the best case as they can for its ideas to continue to be seriously examined by others. There is not going to be an equal meeting ever again, the east sold that right off in exchange for our sweet cheaply mass manufactured products and narcotics half a millenia ago.
“To me, ancestral worship, which would appear to rank very highly on matters of importance for the average eastern buddhist still today,”
Ancestor worship is only part of sino-buddhism: Buddhist countries in South East Asia where Theravada is practiced and even in Tibetan buddhism which has much less confucian influence, there is almost none of this.
David Buchanan says
I haven’t answered the question of who is dismissing first-person accounts? I’ll take that to mean that my answer wasn’t clear and/or you haven’t watched the video yet. This is Jinpa’s way of characterizing the basic metaphysical assumptions of Western science. Scientific objectivity is supposed to be the gold standard. Westerners, he says, have always tried to understand Buddhism with materialist (physicalist) assumptions. And like I said, I see this happening here too. This is not very surprising because people like you and I and others who would hang out here are going to share these assumptions.
In response to some quotes from “Dewey’s Zen”, for example, you said first person accounts were available but then asked “how does having an experience ‘count’ in terms of establishing what sorts of physics are at work in the world?” Why would you assume that anyone expects to gain knowledge about physics from an introspective examination of consciousness? I mean, when looking at consciousness from the first person perspective physical structures simply aren’t the subject of inquiry. Nobody experiences neurons from a first person perspective. And brain imagining can’t show anyone what consciousness is like. These are two different perspectives, two different kinds of phenomena and the trick is applying the methods that are appropriate to the subject matter.
Also nobody is suggesting that science should limit it’s investigations. The criticism is approximately the opposite, in fact. Western science operates with a form of empiricism that’s way too narrow. The tractatus-inspired positivists, to take the most conspicuous example, were so narrow that they excluded virtually all human meanings and values.
This disconnection between brains and minds is known in our tradition now as “the hard problem of consciousness”. You get brain-mind identity theories and of course you’d know about eliminative materialism. If Jinpa is right, these will never be solved until Western science realizes its own scope and limits, until it sees the artificial limits imposed by its own metaphysical assumptions (which aren’t even seen as metaphysics). The really hard problem, apparently the title of Flanagan’s next book, is how to have meaning in a material world. That’s where Jinpa thinks his tradition can help our tradition.
The concern over intellectual colonialism comes from the video. That’s how Jinpa thinks how the exchange should go forward, which is probably an excessively nice way of saying that he’s tired of the condescending attitude from uncomprehending fools.
And finally, no, I’m not suggesting a third position between natural and supernatural. I’m saying that Jinpa is saying that the West has a very impoverished view of the “nature”. Flanagan gets at this part of the discussion too (Mark recently linked a paper by him). He offered two alternative ways to go to get out of this trouble and the second one he proposed was to rethink the meaning of “nature” in such a way that human meaning and human values are just as natural as natural facts. He asks us to ponder why it is that metaphysical realist get to monopolize the concept of nature. I don’t think it’s one bit crazy to believe that mind is a feature of life and of the natural world. You can’t see it in a brain scan or under a microscope but we know it from experience and that’s empirical reality too.
“Western science operates with a form of empiricism that’s way too narrow. The tractatus-inspired positivists, to take the most conspicuous example, were so narrow that they excluded virtually all human meanings and values.”
First off, living in South Korea, there is no such thing as “Western” and “Eastern” science: there is science and it various methodologies, and even related traditions out of China eventually operated naturalistically. So false dichotomy put up by Dr. Jinpa.
” If Jinpa is right, these will never be solved until Western science realizes its own scope and limits, until it sees the artificial limits imposed by its own metaphysical assumptions (which aren’t even seen as metaphysics)”
My point which I hinted at is that a lot of this is based on an Orientalism that sees things in a Eastern/Western binary. My experiences in Asia, where i live, and in Theravada Buddhist, which I practiced for five years.
The claims of intellectual collonialism is a form of special pleading that treats all ideas as rooted in equal notions, but this move is almost always a strange move which itself is colonializing. It’s inverted Orientalism. Oddly, I only see this kind of thing in the US: I never see in the South Korea or Taiwan.
David Buchanan says
It’s a false dichotomy because there is no such thing as Eastern science? That strikes me as a silly objection. Are we not talking about the actual and historical dialogue between Western Science and Eastern Buddhism? You’re not suggesting there are no important differences between these traditions or that the conversation isn’t happening, I hope. But, as I tried to point out already, James, Dewey and Pirsig are already doing a kind of naturalized Buddhism so there are ways to get at the difference in basic underlying assumptions with the mainstream of American philosophy. Because of their, I believe that I can understand what Jinpa is saying about the narrow and limited empiricism of Western science and its tendency toward naive realism and reductionism.
As I mentioned in another thread, the author of “Dewey’s Zen” explains it like this: “It is not wrong to say that we experience objects, properties, and relations, but it is wrong to say that these are primary in experience. What are primary are pervasive qualities of situations, within which we subsequently discriminate objects, properties, and relations.” There is radical difference between Dewey’s starting point and the starting point assumed by scientific realism. To simplify a bit, the latter takes “nature” to be a universe of physical objects and their relations but for Dewey (as well as James and Pirsig) this kind of scientific realism is just an elaborate set of secondary concepts and taking them as primary ontological realities (as scientific realism does) is to reify those concepts. The radical empiricists all want to point out that objects, properties and their relations are not the starting points of reality. They are products of reflection are always derived from the unanalyzed totality of experience. For these guys, experience itself is reality, the starting point from which our ideas spring and to which our ideas must answer. This is why Jinpa is going to emphasize the phenomenological aspect of their tradition. This is why he wants to emphasize the meditative aspects and other introspective practices; because that’s going to help to distinguish experience as such from our concepts about it.