September 27, 2013

Culture Wars

As science invades the humanities, our understanding of Buddhism hangs in the balance

Linda Heuman

In view of Western Buddhists’ eagerness to collaborate with the scientific study of Buddhism, it might be a good idea to consider whether this collaboration is likely, in the long run, to affirm or prove injurious to the very values and understandings that make one a Buddhist in the first place. In so doing, we might cast an eye to academia, where interdisciplinary cross-fertilization between the humanities and the sciences is all the rage. With a brain-science model moving into traditionally non-scientific realms like aesthetics, ethics, and literature, how have the humanities fared?

If you are interested in finding out, I recommend following the swelling media tsunami set off by a recent essay published in The New Republic by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “Science is not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” (August 6, 2013). Pinker declares the present era—on the basis of its stunning scientific and technological advancements—to be “an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition.” He expects his colleagues in the humanities should share his delight and be “energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences.” He observes that instead, “the intrusion of science into territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.” Pinker appeals to these colleagues to come to their senses, cross the fence, and submit to the scientific worldview.

The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier slammed back against what he calls Pinker’s “scientism” with “Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen” (September 3, 2013). Tufts Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett responded to Wieseltier’s piece, accusing Wieseltier of “name-calling and sarcasm,” which, writes Dennett, “are typically the last refuge of somebody who can’t think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn’t understand and can’t abide.” The wave of high-brow mud-slinging has even reached The New York Times. (See “The Scientism of Steven Pinker” and “Science’s Humanities Gap.”)

Pinker touts the increasing convergence of the humanities and the sciences as “an infusion of new ideas” into the humanities. But to Wieseltier, it is “not so much a convergence of the sciences with the humanities but a convergence of the sciences upon the humanities.”


The key question to ask is: What is meant by knowledge?

The validity of science is not at issue. Pinker’s colleagues in philosophy, literature, or history aren’t calling for a rejection of germ theory or evolution. All the participants in this debate accept, honor, and appreciate the primacy of science as an extremely effective means of gaining objective knowledge about the physical world. At issue is the presumption that this is the only kind of knowledge there is and whether the scientific model should be considered the only valid model for understanding the human condition—in other words, scientism.

Wieseltier writes:

Pinker seems to be saying that reason is essentially scientific. This is…one of his definitional tricks. Reason is larger than science. Reason is not scientific; science is rational. Moreover, science is not all that is rational. Philosophy and literature and history and critical scholarship also espouse skepticism, open debate, formal precision…and—at the highest reaches of humanistic labor—even empirical tests….Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.

This battle between Pinker and Wieseltier is one front line of a civil war that is currently splitting Western intellectual life. The war involves a clash of academic disciplines, with scientists generally on one side, and on the other, humanists, literary critics, artists, and those in the social and behavioral sciences who take a qualitative, interpretive approach. Even more than a clash of disciplines, it is a confrontation of cultures. Scientific culture assumes we are human organisms (or, of late, that we are the human brain) living in an objective universe in which the questions worth asking are literal matters concerned with the explanation of physical processes and the discovery of natural laws and empirical facts. The method of investigating those questions is experimentation. And valid answers are singular; if two explanations contradict, only one can be right. Humanistic culture, on the other hand, assumes that we are human beings living in a world of meaning. The questions worth asking are interpretive ones concerned with qualitative value, morality, and purpose. There are many methods of investigating those questions—the appropriate form depends on the discipline, the context, and the particular question. And these sorts of questions have more than one right answer.

Buddhists might take note that there is a predictable result when a non-scientific culture converges with a scientific one; that is, science dominates. As science begins to take on questions that were previously humanistic ones, the world of lived experience becomes the objective universe. The human being becomes the human body. Meaning, beauty, value, and ethics (not to mention the nature of consciousness) are reduced to matters of objective fact. This same fate awaits Buddhism.

Indeed, the Western Buddhist community is implicated in this war. If you browse the pages of Buddhist publications or visit the Eastern Thought section of your local bookstore, you’ll see many articles and books advocating a scientific understanding of Buddhism. You might also begin to see others that criticize this approach, claiming—like the humanists—that knowledge in Buddhism is about understanding lived experience, not explaining physical processes. Any method of study that turns Buddhism into a simple set of technical operations is bound to mislead; to study Buddhism as a natural science is to remove it from the realm of meaning, to reduce it to something it is not, and to miss out on what about it really matters.

Does this new collaboration actually serve the cause of the advancement of knowledge? We need to ask whether translating non-scientific discourse into scientific discourse actually answers non-scientific questions or merely takes them off the table—rendering them invisible by sleight of hand. Wieseltier invites us to a scientific explanation of a painting:

…a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.

Likewise, can scientific investigation of attention, emotion, compassion, or meditation really answer any important questions about our practice? Buddhism’s collaboration with science risks taking off the table the things we really care about—like morality and spiritual purpose, including purposes such as liberation from suffering. Morality and purpose belong to the realm of human meaning. In conflating the investigation of human meaning with the investigation of the physical body, don’t we, in gaining the brain, rather obviously stand to lose the mind? What then, would be left of our “Buddhism”?

For this reason, Western practitioners might think twice about presenting Buddhism as a science of mind or as fully science-compatible. We should ask ourselves, is the kind of truth embodied in Buddhism actually scientific? Some aspects of Buddhism might well be compatible with science, but ethics, values, and purpose are simply not matters of scientific fact; they are matters of human meaning. Many of us are trying to pass off our spiritual endeavors as “scientific,” because that is the only category of truth that prevailing attitudes of exclusivity recognize. Rather than aligning with scientism, we might be better served by standing with the humanists, literary critics, scientists, historians, and artists who are challenging it.


Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image: The Attributes of the Sciences, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1731.


With support from the John Templeton Foundation, Tricycle’s Buddhism and Modernity project is initiating a conversation between Buddhists and leading thinkers across the humanities and social sciences. Tricycle is exploring how perspectives drawn from research about the nature of religion, culture, science, and secularism can shed light on unexamined assumptions shaping the transmission of Buddhism to modernity. This project offers Western Buddhists new ways of thinking about their spiritual experiences by demonstrating how reason can be used as a tool to open up—rather than shut down—access to traditional faith.

Further Reading

"The Scientific Buddha," by Donald S. Lopez

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Wu Shin's picture

When I returned to a more focused meditation practice and study of Buddhism about a decade ago, I was struck by what I thought was a very scientific approach of the earliest Buddhist sutra teachings in the Pali Cannon, close observation of one's mental processes, observation of cause and affect, adjustment, testing. I understand the virtue dimension in Buddhism like cleaning the research lab and playing soft music for comfort. But besides all of that, I thought Buddhism was about liberation, in which condition I suspect any science vs humanities conflict in the mind disappears, like the noses on our debaters ' faces. Though it is not clear to me that our contestants are seeking liberation, rather seeking proof of their positions. But, then isn't that what scholars, scientists, and academics do, debate, not at all though that the subject is not important, but it is not clear to me that it is part of liberation. Carl Jung, in the 1950s I think, once remarked when reflecting on a pattern of dreams he saw in many patients, that these were about the building of a new world religion, Gestalt, that would be several hundred years in the making. Perhaps it may be some hundreds of years to see the outcome of Buddhism meets Scientism and Corporatism in the West.

Jack Foreigner's picture

This whole debate is ridiculous. Must I remind everyone of my favorite Zen koan, the only one that I ever understood with a Suzukian "zzzzzt!" (simpleton that I am):

A Zen Master was enjoying tea and cake with two disciples one summer afternoon. Suddenly he cried out, "What's this?" and threw a fan at one disciple, who caught it, opened it, and fanned himself. "Good!" said the Master, then throwing another fan at the other disciple, crying out, "What's this?" The second disciple caught the fan, opened it, and served the Master more cake. "Good!" said the Master.

Honestly, folks, this whole "scientism" vs. humanities non-debate of a debate is precisely why Zen monks get slapped or hit with a stick!! Can't believe I'm finding this stuff in Tricycle...

Stephen Shogaku Zenshin Echard Musgrave Roshi's picture

Scientism is the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning—much the most valuable part because it is much the most authoritative, or serious, or beneficial. ( Tom Sorell, 1991)“

For a Nuero Scientist to speak of the mind,to a Buddhist steeped in the philosophy of the Abhidharma, the works of Asangha ,and ,Vasubhandu,,and the Vijnavadans,and years of meditations is like a Bedouin lecturing an Aleut about the qualities of Snow. Ontological reductionism is nihilism and anyone who thinks they are a follower of the Buddha Dharma and espouses this is badly deluded

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Bedouin and the Aleut should talk about birth, aging, illness and death, which both have more in common than the weather.

Jack Foreigner's picture

They should have sex, or exchange wives. No, I'm serious. To borrow Hillel, "everything else is commentary."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Everybody makes comments about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

Jack Foreigner's picture

Sure they do! They just ain't very good so far -- rain dances, cloud-seedin'...no doubt it won't be an issue one day, thanks to science -- yes, science!!

feralyung's picture

This is a really deep subject so I will defer detailed elaboration by references to outside material and try to touch the main points as I see them. I largely agree with " Reply by mahakala on September 28, 2013, 7:45 pm " but see the ad hominem attacks as unnecessary. As someone with a post graduate education in mathematics and physics and a lot of time spent in the trenches of the philosophy of science, I thought I might be able to say something constructive. To cut to the chase, I point to the publication of B. Alan Wallace "Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic" ISBN 978-0231158343. Another valuable publication is of a talk by Stephen Hawking http://www.physics.sfasu.edu/astro/news/20030308news/StephenHawking20030... . The scientific method is a method, not a theory. Many would confuse it with logical positivism which demands logic and consensual repeatable experiments as the foundation of science(often explicated an nomological deductivism). The centrality of mathematics as the backbone of any "scientific" theory is generally taken as gospel. I believe Hawking has, finally, let the cat(Schrodinger's?) out of the bag. As there are an infinite number of ways of doing mathematics(see documentary "Dangerous Knowledge") there are an infinite number of ways of doing physics. Hawking said in response to this situation "Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I'm now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery. Without it, we would stagnate. Gödel’s theorem ensured there would always be a job for mathematicians. I think M theory will do the same for physicists. I'm sure Dirac would have approved. " There is a BBC Four documentary "Dangerous Knowledge" http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dangerous-knowledge/ that does an excellent job of explaining this issue for the general public. So it is of paramount importance to tease apart the words theory and epistemological method. In quantum field theory, there is the measurement problem that B. Alan Wallace discusses in his above mentioned book. The dogma of mechanistic materialism is crumbling and the Buddhist concept of dependent origination is being seen as the deepest insight into the basic nature of reality. As for the social sciences we have the philosophical investigations of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida who have appropriated emptiness in Western clothing(yahoo, ride em cowboy) but have faltered on their bankrupt ethics based on nihilism. Heroes such as Dacher Keltner of Berkeley ("Born to be Good" ISBN 978-0393337136) and Frans de Waal ("Good Natured - The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals" ISBN 9780674356610)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frans_de_Waal) and others are answering the nihilism of evolutionary theory based on molecular biology and people like Richard Dawkins(The Selfish Gene") who assume what they claim to prove. There is a science to the philosophy of Buddhism(Nagarjuna and the mulamadhyamakakarika) as B. Alan Wallace very cogently and competently points out. Shakyamuni is attributed to providing an early version of the scientific method in the kamala sutta( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta). The pivotal point in the discussion of science and Buddhism revolves around the ontological status of consciousness and the issue of ineffability with regard to consciousness. In lieu of writing a book here I have chosen to get as much in by making reference to outside material. As I said at the beginning, this is very deep water, a 30 word write bite(twitter titter) is a waste of everyone's time.

Jack Foreigner's picture

Thanks for the reference to the documentary. But would you use line breaks next time, at least?

mahakala's picture

like totally like attracts like
hammer toes slammer head 
evolutionary dead end apex
culled a sack of mashed potato 
spud guns fully loaded all the same
aiming for eagle eye birdie 
drop zone alpha daddy zero
hot button finger gang banging
black and white holes in the ground
conspicuously non-ass shaped
clearly marked par for the coursing
space grass continuum vortex windmill
powered field of fractal grid shimmering
sparkling summoning unicorns
elves and dragon fire magic
out from the depths of dungeons
leonardo's robot lion walks
across the iron throne room
luminous literati be goddamned again
symbolic construction made manifest
destiny of constellated composite
hurricane hunters holding candles
under sacred cheeseburger grill
awesomeness quotient > thou
skewered apples in piggy mouth
cast buzzing presidential terms
on street walker calling card

wilnerj's picture

The following is a trivial point and does not relate directly to the topic under discussion. I therefore bear responsibility for any criticism that might be as replies to the following:

Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin established a precedence for still life painters that subsequent artists emulated. He strove for simplicity and ennobled everyday objects by making them subjects of his paintings. In other words, he captured the beauty which lies within these objects such as glasses, cutlery, tablecloths, etc. Among the painters influenced by his style was the flamboyant portraitist and landscape artist William Merritt Chase. There I got that off my chest. Whew. Hmmm... Chardin's work is a celebration of the ordinary.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Norman Rockwell also celebrated the quite ordinary.

wilnerj's picture

Many American artist celebrated the ordinary. There is for example the Ashcan school of the 1930's portraying working class life mostly in urban areas. But Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin lived in 18th Century France. And his specialty was still life and not genre painting and not illustrations for magazines. As an Eighteenth century painter he paved the way for others who incorporated his celebration of ordinary everyday objects portrayed with a limited palette.

One other point: the still life painters in his day frequently incorporated Christian allegorical themes into their work. This was not Chardin's focus in his portrayal of everyday objects. He was interested in these objects as they appeared to him and not for any allegorical meaning.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Cubists of 20th century France, attuned to new scientific findings on the nature of phenomena, also painted objects as they "appeared" to them.

wilnerj's picture

Indeed my last sentence was incorrect. Chardin did not portray objects as he saw them but rather interpreted them, that is, translating from three dimensions to the flat plane of the canvas or ground. Likewise the Cubists translated what they perceived. Only, they broke down objects into geometric planes. They dispensed with linear perspective regarding it as dishonest by creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. Georges Braque was influenced by Chardin.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Cubism attempted to show what cannot be observed unaided: motion in space-time, relativity, the unconscious.

wilnerj's picture

Speaking of capturing motion, there is Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending Staircase. All of these painters reflect the emptiness that is inherent in form and surrounding form as negative space. One can say they sculpt negative space upon a flat surface.

Thank you for pointing out the importance of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century art in this regard.

JoseBuendia's picture

I have not read Mr. Weiseltier's article. But I am afraid that in defending the humanities by claiming that "reason is larger than science" he entirely concedes the field of battle. Of course, literary or other academic criticism employs reason -- but the essential experience of art (and religion) is beyond reason.

In Buddhist terminology, reason applies in the world of relative truth. In the moment, without memory or comparison, a flower or a color or a note of music is timeless and beyond conception. Genuine art lets us glimpse this ultimate truth. Genuine religion provides a path to stabilizing this understanding. Literary or artistic criticism can help us orient ourselves to experience art. But the view that art (or religion) is best understood through reason and scholarship is simply incorrect. And the approach of science to research Buddhist practices as therapies, or as causes that lead to measurable physical results, is like using a five volume Tibetan treatise on the nature of mind as a doorstop.

depardizayn's picture

In my home country of England, "aesthetics, ethics, and literature" have always followed science," ... is a ridiculous and meaningless statement.

mahakala's picture

I still dont understand this idea of "scientism". Perhaps the intended meaning is "materialist"? I thought science was defined by experimentation and discovery, which seems entirely Buddhist to me. But what do I know? Lets hear from a local Buddhist superstar himself:

Since wisdom or insight is the chief instrument of enlightenment, the Buddha always asked his disciples to follow him on the basis of their own understanding, not from obedience or unquestioning trust. He calls his Dhamma ehipassiko, which means "Come and see for yourself." He invites inquirers to investigate his teaching, to examine it in the light of their own reason and intelligence, and to gain confirmation of its truth for themselves. The Dhamma is said to be paccattam veditabbo viññuhi, "to be personally understood by the wise," and this requires intelligence and sustained inquiry

- Bhikkhu Bodhi

I would say that "science" is purely the act of investigation itself - a methodology - not a world view. It is an ongoing division between fact and fiction - truth and falsehood - reality and illusion. The Dharma itself is predicated on the same principle. Humanity is not separate from its own conceptual machinations, however grandiose they appear. There is a direct relation between physiology and psychology and both inform each other to a degree which is still not fully understood. This includes ethics, aesthetics, perception of beauty, emotional experience, and all manner of things born of the mind itself.

Humanity does not need Buddhists (or anyone else) to make another conceptually establishmentarian attempt to divide "body and soul" - regardless of which side is favored or how much ideological complexity is layered on top. The prevailing attitude in this article comes across as entirely reactionary, and even somewhat childish in its desire to individuate purely on the basis of personally favored intellectual associations. Territorial displays of self-image run rampant throughout, and this is somehow supposed to be associated with the practice of "waking up"? Get real.

leegee's picture

"With a brain-science model moving into traditionally non-scientific realms like aesthetics, ethics, and literature, how have the humanities fared?"

In my home country of England, "aesthetics, ethics, and literature" have always followed science, from Shakespeare and the Metaphysical Poets onwards.

As far as I can see, scientists associated with The Mind & Life Institute have been doing very well with Buddhism (and other religions), done no harm, indeed validated the value of meditation, both its short- and long-term effects. Teachers like Shinzen Young seem to me to explain various aspects and forms of Buddhism very well from a scientific perspective and through scientific analogy.

This short article should have been a lot longer, and could have been improved with better research. Is the magazine short on copy?

celticpassage's picture

"In my home country of England, "aesthetics, ethics, and literature" have always followed science," ... is a ridiculous and meaningless statement.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The 800 lb. gorilla in the middle of the room is that Buddhism is a belief system, a religion. Of course science, in its present state of evolution, is limited in what it's able to report about life/the universe, including what religions posit about it.

Halflotus's picture

Buddhism is about actual experience, not beliefs.

celticpassage's picture

That's a pretty insubstantial opinion. It isn't an either/or situation.

Buddhism, may be about about actual experience in some ways, but it is definitely about beliefs as well; as is any religion.
I always find it quite amusing that many Buddhists think that they are somehow more rational than followers of other religions, and that the Buddhist religion is somehow more rational, but I digress.

Obviously, one cannot interpret 'actual' experience without a framework of beliefs. So, yes. Buddhism is a belief system of a certain kind which is normally called religion, the beliefs of some of its members not withstanding.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Precisely. Belief, trust, confidence in your actual experiences from practicing Buddhism.

celticpassage's picture

I don't see any need for the humanities to join science or condemn their approaches.
Science cannot supplant or replace the pursuit of understanding through philosophy, art, literature, etc.
There will always be the two schools remaining separate.

Jack Foreigner's picture

Only if we insist on the continued re-ifying of what are only convenient mental constructs.