May 19, 2014

Buddhism & Science

Scholar David McMahan and contributing editor Linda Heuman on Interfaith Voices

Buddhist scholar David McMahan and Tricycle contributing editor Linda Heuman are guests on the newest episode of Interfaith Voices, the nation’s leading public radio show on religion and spirituality, to speak about the longstanding dialogue between Buddhism and science. An alliance between Buddhism and science began “sometime in the late 19th century,” McMahan tells host Maureen Fiedler,

in some ways as a reaction to characterizations of Buddhism by…European colonists who were colonizing Buddhist countries and missionizing Buddhist countries, and were portraying Buddhism as superstitious and backwards and idolatrous. As a response, a lot of Buddhists began highlighting the philosophical, ethical elements—things that resonated with powerful forms of modern knowledge and Western thought, like transcendentalism and enlightenment rationalism and psychology, and also a lot of different kinds of science.

These historical developments have led to an understanding that contemporary studies on meditation somehow prove that Buddhism “works.” But according to Heuman, this approach “assumes that meditation is doing the same thing in a religious as in a secular context”:

We actually need to be asking, “efficacious for what?” and to really ask ourselves…whether proving the efficacy of meditation for therapeutic ends really translates into whether or not it works toward liberative ends.

Listen to the full conversation below, and don’t miss Linda Heuman’s interview with the Dalai Lama’s translator Thupten Jinpa Langri on this topic in the new issue of Tricycle.

—Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor

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"Buddhism and Science"

sangha dassa's picture

Dear Candor, it is always a great joy to read your contributions. You are a very effective communicator and your commitmet to learning and sharing is very valuable to all of us in this corner of the tricycle community. Its been great finding you all here. I have never done this before. It is good to find people who orient around the same interests that I have. So I can spill out my heart and explore what I really feel and think about things. Though I know I must drive you guys crazy! I have one good thing to report! Which would 'have to be' completely coincidental of course! If I were to accept your epistomology, without reservations! Your discussion of veganism has left an impression. For some odd reason, that you would probably be able to explain better, than I ever could - in a month of sundays! Shortly, after reading your reflections on veganism, I went into my favorite veji cafe, and the girl that works there - my friend - said, almost immediately: I am thinking about becoming a vegan! Hmm... So I sat myself down - as you do! And commenced my usual playful banter, cyclic perceptions, feelings, thoughts etc. And proceeded to slurp on some spicy chai! Mmm... Then this lovely man walks in, and I start up with my usual repartee. I met him once before 'same place, same channel'. This time, we sit down together and start to wrap! He tells me his a vegan, of ten years standing, and we begin the 'discussion'. I am meeting him again today and he is going to give me all soughts of great downloads, d.v.d's and stuff. I am still not sure I agreed 'completely' with his take on ethics. But - ignorant as I am - I am still gonna start to play with a transition. Just for the hell of it! This should save me a lot of explanatory effort. If someone asks why I am one? I can answer: I don't really know! I just kinda feel its a good thing to do! Amy - the cafe girl - will also get some downloads. So wish me luck! Or, whatever it takes. There is more than one way to 'free' a rabbit! As the vegan saying goes! xxxxxoooooooo

candor's picture

Thanks for your kind words, Sangha.

Nice to hear about the coincidences. This is off-topic, but my answer to questions about why I'm vegan depend on the situation. Sometimes it's not the right time or place or something, and I'll say "Because I like animals" or "Animals are my friends" and leave it at that, refusing to explain further. Other times, if it seems like the right time and place, I'll give a long lecture about why. And yet other times, my answer will be somewhere in between.

Regardless, it's best to know why for yourself, not for others. Do whatever it takes to know why for yourself.

Usually people are curious; sometimes defensive; sometimes even offensive. Answer however you're comfortable answering.

Good luck! :-)

candor's picture

It seems to me that Stephen Jay Gould is incorrect in his claim that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria." When religions make claims of the existence of supernatural entities or processes, such claims can be treated as scientific hypotheses.

There should be no difference between an ancient claim that "X walks on water" versus "My dad walked on water when he was alive, back in the 1990s." But of course, many people, due to ignorance and prejudice, take the former seriously and would ridicule the latter, when they ought to dismiss both claims out of hand due to common experience and basic scientific literacy.

What matters is that we be rationally consistent in what we believe based on common sense, common experience, and widespread scientific consensus among experts. If we reject supernatural claims of our contemporaries (Joe is the reincarnation of my dad), then we should also (and especially) reject similar claims of our scientifically ignorant ancient ancestors.

Richard Fidler's picture

If miracles cannot be demonstrated now, they did not happen in times past. By "demonstrated" I mean that they are not available for study, not that people don't see certain events as miracles--they do that all the time. And it isn't fair to point to every spontaneous remission of an illness as a miracle. Science never said events are utterly predictable; in fact, it says just the opposite. Both bad and good things just happen.

candor's picture

True, science does not claim events are necessarily predictable. The main reason events are not always predictable is complexity beyond humans to grasp it. We evolved to survive, not to predict specific outcomes involving complexity on the scale of events like weather produces.

With the exception of quantum theory however -- certain aspects of which are still subject to current scientific and philosophical interpretation which may be found in the future to be inadequate given new discoveries -- science does presume causal relationships or processes between events. That is, with the exception of quantum indeterminacy (which doesn't yet have consensus, and is more in the area of theoretical physics than science), things do not just happen. Rather, things are caused by other things.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"things are caused by other things", i.e. dependent origination.

candor's picture

Indeed, and it would take incredible evidence to overthrow dependent origination.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It would be like trying to disprove the law of gravity. No detectable causal links, but it happens.

drleroi's picture

I am not a physicist either. However, as I understand it, certain things, like radioactive decay, can only be understood statistically. An isotope has a half life which can be predicted. However, that says nothing about which atom will decay at any given time. This does not seem to be merely a matter of complexity.

candor's picture

Correct, it’s not merely a matter of complexity (although complexity is a problem). It’s also a matter of a lack of knowledge. The distinction between epistemic claims (claims of knowledge) and ontic claims (claims of reality) is important.

According to my understanding, radioactive decay can (currently) only be understood statistically because of our lack of knowledge about the mechanism causing atoms to decay. So it is an epistemic claim to say that “radioactive decay can only be understood statistically” or “the precise results of dice rolling can only be understood statistically.”

If our knowledge of physics at the quantum and particle level were good enough, we could predict which atom will decay next and precisely why it will. That would be an ontic claim.

When physicists claim “quantum randomness” or “quantum indeterminacy,” I believe that to be an epistemic claim reflecting our lack of knowledge regarding mechanisms at that level of physics, not an ontic claim that there really are uncaused events, such as radioactive decay of a particular atom that has no mechanism causing its decay.

A more familiar situation is rolling dice. We cannot predict the result of any particular throw, but we wouldn't claim the particular result was ontologically uncaused. Our *ontic claim* would be that a complex combination of the position of the dice at the time of the toss, the vector force of the toss, the shape of the dice, the air currents during flight, the position of the landing, and other micro-level forces caused the result. Our *epistemic claim* is that the result was "random."

Anyway, there are still huge gaps of knowledge in physics, from quantum theory to relativity to cosmology. When physicists have reconciled quantum mechanics with general relativity with empirical confirmation, know what dark matter and dark energy are, and have empirically confirmed areas of theoretical physics like string theory and multiverse hypotheses, then we might know a lot more about quantum “indeterminacy” (perhaps going back to the clockwork, fully-determined universe or multiverse). Until then, I’m skeptical about ontological randomness and all interpretations of quantum theory.

drleroi's picture

I am not a physicist either. However, as I understand it, certain things, like radioactive decay, can only be understood statistically. An isotope has a half life which can be predicted. However, that says nothing about which atom will decay at any given time. This does not seem to be merely a matter of complexity.

sangha dassa's picture

I hope you are right regarding your conjecture about quantum theory. I understand why you would find it useful if certain aspects of it were ''found in the future to be inadequate given new discoveries.'' Until then, we will just have to contain our excitement! How are you going on the 'beggars can't be choosers' blog. I think we came up trumps. We may have to be satisfied with something less than consensus. This applies to the discussion here, as well! Never mind, I feel it is worth the effort to explore, as we do! xxoo

candor's picture

LOL, yes, we will have to contain our excitement regarding the outcome of quantum "uncertainty." The ironic thing is that I consider quantum indeterminism to be epistemologically weak in its current state. I believe we should be cautious and skeptical in this area that is really a matter of theoretical physics (which is not yet science). But some religious theorists are anything but skeptical regarding quantum indeterminism, and use it as a gateway to all kinds of wild spiritual and supernatural conjecture.

I think the "beggars can't be choosers" blog has run its course. From my perspective, it's tragic that there would be any disagreement, especially on a Buddhist site. But I'm mostly calloused to the tragedy, regardless of where I experience it, having been hammered by it relentlessly for over 10 years.

Religious belief, OTOH, while I reject it categorically, I don't see as a big deal unless someone is using it (intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously) to justify violence or harm to anyone, including nonhuman animals. I mainly participate in these religion-science discussions for academic reasons; that is, epistemology is interesting to me, and sometimes educational, not just for me, but for most people who read the discussions.

Richard Fidler's picture

I'm glad you see problems with quantum indeterminism, calling it "weak in its current state". I do, too. In particular, I am bothered when physicists declare events are somehow dependent on a human observer. As a biologist, when I see humans separated out from other organisms, I am immediately suspicious: given that humans occupy but one branch of the evolutionary tree, what is so special about them? In general, physicists make poor philosophers--or to be fair, only average ones. That is fine--their skills in mathematics are much appreciated all the same.

candor's picture

Yes, we're on the same page, regarding both being skeptical about interpretations of quantum theory and rejecting anthropocentrism.

There are some cases where so-called "observation" changes events. An example is the detection of an electron by having a photon interact with it ( or particle collisions in general). But "observation" is a very misleading word in these cases. Particles (like photons) change events; it's exceedingly unlikely that mere observations do.

There are some interpretations of quantum theory, however, that claim that mere observation collapses the wavefunction. This is philosophy, though, not science. There are over a dozen expert interpretations of quantum theory, half of them deterministic, the other half indeterministic, along with numerous other differences in interpretation (e.g. realist versus anti-realist interpretation). This is anything but consensus.

Richard Fidler's picture

You have a deeper understanding of quantum mechanics than I do. But even from my position of relative ignorance, I could see that sending a photon to "observe" the location of an electron (and thereby changing its coordinates) doesn't have anything to do with an "observer". All I can see are systems of interacting particles--and the question of whether motions are determined or not doesn't seem interesting to me. "Free will" is only an interesting question if it involves personal choice--and since Buddhism at its very heart denies there is a self that makes a choice--it doesn't matter if what we do results from all of the conditions acting at the time or whether some wave function collapsed "just because". What does it matter if things are probabilistic or determined if choice is only an illusion?

candor's picture

Agreed on the issue of "free will" -- that is, it's pure illusion. Also agreed that whether there are uncaused events in the universe isn't relevant to the free will question -- free will is still pure illusion.

I find the resolution of the question of uncaused events/indeterminism versus determinism interesting, though. It's interesting because the idea of utterly uncaused events seems very counterintuitive. It seems far more likely that quantum physicists haven't discovered enough about the quantum world than that stuff just happens for no reason whatsoever. Therefore, I lean toward the belief that causality is universal and without exception. That is, I doubt that there are uncaused events, quantum or otherwise. However, I'm not confident in this area. I hope someday for much better and more confirmed explanations in quantum theory.

Richard Fidler's picture

I am not sure about determinism: there sure is a lot of chaos I see around me--turbulence and the pattern of leaves on the ground, for two. Do those things result from our inability to trace back actions to their causal conditions or is disorder built into the system? I don't know.

candor's picture

I believe that chaos merely describes a human epistemic limitation. It's not necessarily an ontological claim. When chaos is made as an ontological claim, I am extremely skeptical. It seems far more likely that we don't understand or cannot comprehend reality at the level of chaos than that uncaused events happen. See my comment above today (May 28) to drleroi.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In light of the “eternal verities”, science is truth, art is beauty, and religion goodness. History shows that humanity is healthier when all three are utilized equally.

candor's picture

Hmm...jihad, caste systems, and the religious wars of Europe (just to name a few) seem to invalidate the claim that religion is goodness or that history supports the claim that religion is healthy for humanity.

That's not to say religion is badness or uniquely unhealthy, but to say that, like many human inventions, religion is only as good or healthy as its user.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Religion exists because of humanity's desire for something more substantive than war, disease, poverty, unhappiness. As with anything else, some religions are more effective than others in that respect.